WASHINGTON — A top House Democrat expressed optimism that the Senate bill mandating congressional review before the Trump administration rolls back any sanctions on Russia may see the light of day in the lower chamber this week.
But the White House, which has reportedly been trying to get House Republicans to water down the language in the bill that also toughens sanctions on Moscow, said it must retain foreign policy flexibility — a similar argument that the Obama administration made against lawmakers’ insistence on reviewing and voting on the Iran nuclear deal.
The final, veto-proof tally on the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 in the mid-June Senate vote 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 with only Paul and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) voting against it.
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.”
Once the legislation went to the lower chamber, the House Ways and Means Committee held it 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 — even though senators said they worked with the House early in the process to clear up any such issues.
Politico reported Monday that House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) is frustrated with GOP leadership stalling and may introduce his own sanctions legislation to get the ball rolling. “Russia and Iran must be held accountable for their aggression that undermines our national security, and global stability,” he said. “The sooner we can get this done, the better.”
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters today that President Trump “is committed to maintaining the existing sanctions against Russia, until Moscow reverses the aggressive actions against Ukraine that triggered the sanctions.”
“And President Trump reaffirmed this position at the G20 last Friday. But, this is more about foreign policy and having the flexibility to negotiate with other countries,” she added. “And this includes working with allies and partners to present a united front to common foes, and we remain committed to working with Congress on those issues.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said the procedural squabbles over the bill are nothing, and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could “absolutely — 1,000 percent” put the bill on the floor. “The decision comes down to one thing: Does the House want to take up Russia sanctions or not?” he said. “Period.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said this afternoon he’s “continuing to have conversations with my Republican colleagues regarding the Russia sanctions bill.”
“I continue to oppose the process House Republicans included in the bill that would only allow the Speaker of the House to force consideration of whether to allow the administration to waive sanctions,” Hoyer said in a statement. “I believe this is an issue that we can quickly resolve, and I hope that Republican leadership will work with us to address this issue and bring the bill to the floor for a strong, bipartisan vote this week.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said a sanctions vote is “especially” important in light of this week’s news about Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian attorney who promised “very high level & sensitive information” on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” according to emails released by the president’s son.
“I urge my House colleagues to pass the Senate Russia sanctions bill, and make it clear to Russia that we won’t tolerate this kind of interference in our elections or what they’re doing in regards to Ukraine or Syria,” Cardin said. “Especially in light of today’s news, Congress must act definitively and immediately.”