Democrats fear slowdown of Russia sanctions bill in House
Legislation that would hit Russia with economic sanctions and limit President Donald Trump's authority to lift the penalties faces an uncertain future in the House despite the bill's heavily bipartisan backing in the Senate.
Instead of moving for a quick vote to build on the burst of momentum created in the Senate, where the measure won 98 votes last week, the Republican leadership in the House has sent the sweeping sanctions package to the Foreign Affairs Committee for a review. The Russia penalties are embedded in a broader bill slapping sanctions on Iran.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the committee's top Democrat, said Monday he's concerned that sending the sanctions bill to the committee will give the Trump administration an opportunity to weaken legislation. Such a move amid multiple investigations into Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election would trigger an outcry among Democrats and some Republicans.
"Republican leadership should bring it straight to the floor without delay so the House can vote on it and send it to the president's desk," Engel said in a statement. Any other option, Engel added, will stall "this process and give the White House time to water down this key effort to hold the Kremlin accountable."
Any substantive changes to the bill would have to be squared with the Senate's version, which would require more time to get the measure through Congress.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said in an email that Ryan believes Congress must do more to hold Russia responsible. She said "we will determine a path ahead in the House" after the Foreign Affairs Committee's assessment is complete. Strong didn't say how long the committee's review would take or whether changes to the sanctions bill are anticipated.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has offered only lukewarm support for the bill. Tillerson said during congressional testimony last week that Trump needs to have "the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation" with Russia. An overly aggressive sanctions bill, Tillerson suggested, could lead Moscow to shut off potentially promising talks with Washington.
The sanctions package approved by the Senate is aimed at rebuking Russia for what U.S. intelligence agencies concluded was a hidden campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election to favor Trump.
Lawmakers who backed the legislation have cited Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and its backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine as additional reasons for punishing Moscow.
The legislation would give Capitol Hill a much stronger hand in determining Russia sanctions policy. The bill would require a congressional review if Trump attempts to ease or end penalties against Moscow.
A House bill introduced by Engel and Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., to punish illegal foreign interference in American elections was pulled at the last minute from consideration by the Foreign Affairs Committee late last month.
The committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Ed Royce of California, explained to Connolly during a committee meeting that he was working to build bipartisan backing for the legislation. He emphasized his interest in highlighting "Russia's dangerous activities."
Royce added that Russia hasn't gone completely unpunished.
The Obama administration struck back at Moscow in late December with a series of penalties aimed at Russia's leading spy agencies, the GRU and FSB, that the U.S. said were involved. The GRU is Russia's military intelligence agency. The FSB is the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
Royce also noted that the House last month passed a bipartisan bill to crack down on financial backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. The measure targets Russia and Iran by requiring the president to sanction countries or companies that do business with or provide financing to the Syrian government or the Central Bank of Syria. The Senate has not acted on the legislation, however.