WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure that would require congressional approval for the Trump administration to relax sanctions on Russia, but there’s little enthusiasm from GOP leadership in the House to take up the legislation.
The final, veto-proof tally on the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 Thursday was 98-2, with Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dissenting. An amendment to maintain and increase punitive sanctions on Moscow while requiring rollback approval was passed Wednesday, with only Paul and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) voting against it.
Last week, as the Senate was taking action, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that while he agreed “with the sentiment that has been conveyed by several members from both parties that Russia must be held accountable for its meddling in U.S. elections,” he “would urge Congress to ensure any legislation allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation.”
“Essentially, we would ask for the flexibility to turn the heat up when we need to, but also to ensure that we have the ability to maintain a constructive dialogue,” he added.
“I believe that the only thing that Russia understands is tough talk,” Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) told Tillerson. “And if they think that we’re somehow willing to relax the sanctions on them before they’ve complied with the Minsk framework and left Crimea, I think it just will encourage Putin to continue his bullying. And who knows where he’ll strike next.”
The House Ways and Means Committee is now holding up the sanctions bill, the Washington Post reported, on the charge that it could be a “blue slip” violation — running afoul of the origination clause requiring revenue-generating measures to originate in the House. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker’s (R-Tenn.) office indicated that they worked with Ways and Means to clear up any blue-slip issues before the Senate even voted on the bill.
Asked about the bill at today’s briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, “I think we’re going to wait and see what happens in the House before we weigh in on that package.”
“There’s — it’s not just the package. I think there’s some other areas of that package that we need to work with the House and the Senate on if it comes back to — depending on how it — how it’s handled in the House that we have to address,” Spicer added.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the House should act quickly. “We all know that the Russians tried to interfere in our elections,” McCain said. “Here we are six months later, and we’ve done nothing.”
Engel said House leadership was conducting “nothing but a delay tactic and the public shouldn’t be fooled by complex-sounding parliamentary procedure.”
“If Republican leadership says we can’t act on the Senate bill, here’s an easy solution: let’s introduce an identical House version and we can vote on that instead,” Engel said.
“I predict this isn’t the last excuse we’ll hear for trying to slow this bill’s momentum, but make no mistake, anything short of an up-or-down vote on this tough sanctions package is an attempt to let Russia off the hook.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said the “overwhelming bipartisan resolve in the Senate for strong sanctions against Russia should carry over to the House.”
“I’m deeply alarmed that the Republican House leadership is considering a parliamentary maneuver which could delay or halt the bill from advancing to the floor for a vote,” Cardin said. “Russia must be held accountable for its destabilizing activities in the United States, Ukraine, Syria, and worldwide. This bill does that and it’s time for House action, not political games to shield a White House unwilling or unable to comprehensively act on its own.”