Congressional group reaches sanctions deal
Bill takes aim at Russia, others; president’s options curtailed
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement on a sanctions package to punish Russia for meddling in the presidential election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, congressional leaders said Saturday.
The bill limits President Donald Trump’s ability to suspend or terminate the sanctions, defying the White House’s argument that Trump needs flexibility to adjust sanctions to fit his diplomatic initiatives with Moscow. Under the bill, Trump is required to send Congress a report explaining why he wants to suspend or terminate a particular set of sanctions. Lawmakers would then have 30 days to decide whether to allow the move or reject it.
The White House has not publicly commented on the compromise legislation. But two senior administration officials said they could not imagine Trump vetoing the legislation in the current political atmosphere, even if he regards it as interfering with his executive authority to conduct foreign policy. This would be his first decision about whether to veto a significant bill.
The bill also includes stiff economic penalties against Iran and North Korea. The sanctions targeting Russia, however, have drawn the most attention as a result of Trump’s push for warmer relations with President Vladimir Putin and because of the ongoing investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign.
A sanctions package had stalled in the Republican-led House for weeks after winning nearly unanimous support in the Senate last month. Democrats accused Republicans of delaying quick action on the bill at the behest of the Trump administration, which had asked for more flexibility in its relationship with Russia and took up the cause of energy companies, defense contractors and other financial players who suggested that certain provisions could harm U.S. businesses.
The House version of the bill includes a small number of changes, technical and substantive, from the Senate legislation, including some made in response to concerns raised by oil and gas companies.
But for the most part, the Republican leadership
appears to have rejected most of the White House’s objections. The bill aims to punish Russia not only for interference in the election but also for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its continuing military activity in eastern Ukraine and its human-rights abuses. Proponents of the measure seek to impose sanctions on people involved in human-rights abuses, suppliers of weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and those undermining cybersecurity, among others.
The House version of the bill is set for a vote Tuesday, according to the office of the chamber’s majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
“North Korea, Iran and Russia have in different ways all threatened their neighbors and actively sought to undermine American interests,” McCarthy and Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a joint statement. “The bill the House will vote on next week will now exclusively focus on these nations and hold them accountable for their dangerous actions.”
The Senate last month passed sanctions legislation that targeted only Russia and Iran. Congressional aides said there may be resistance among Senate Republicans to adding the North Korea penalties, but it remained unclear whether those concerns would further stall the legislation. The aides were not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“A nearly united Congress is poised to send President Putin a clear message on behalf of the American people and our allies, and we need President Trump to help us deliver that message,” said Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Cardin said that though he would have preferred full adoption of the Senate version, “I welcome the House bill, which was the product of intense negotiations.”
He said the legislation would “express solidarity with our closest allies in countering Russian aggression and holding the Kremlin accountable for their destabilizing activities.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said he expected this “strong” bill to reach the president’s desk promptly “on a broad bipartisan basis.”
“Given the many transgressions of Russia, and President Trump’s seeming inability to deal with them, a strong sanctions bill such as the one Democrats and Republicans have just agreed to is essential,” Schumer said.
In the House, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the minority whip, praised the agreement’s stipulation that “the majority and minority are able to exercise our oversight role over the administration’s implementation of sanctions.”
The precise mechanics of how involved House Democrats would be in the review process had been a key sticking point, but Hoyer said he was pleased with the outcome.
But Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, struck a notably different tone. In a statement, she said she was “concerned by changes insisted upon by Republicans” that would empower only the Republican leadership to “originate actions in the House to prevent the Trump administration from rolling back sanctions.”
She also registered concerns about adding sanctions against North Korea to the package, questioning whether it would prompt delays in the Senate. Schumer and Cardin expressed no such concerns.
The House and Senate negotiators addressed concerns voiced by American oil and natural gas companies that sanctions specific to Russia’s energy sector could backfire on them to Moscow’s benefit. The bill would set a threshold for when U.S. firms would be prohibited from being part of energy projects that also included Russian businesses, applying that restriction to projects in which sanctioned Russian entities have at least a 33 percent interest.
The delays in the House became a source of deep frustration among some Russia hawks — including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., before he left Washington for medical treatment for a brain tumor.
“Pass it, for Christ’s sake,” he said to his House colleagues, as the measure languished this month over technical concerns raised mostly by Republicans.
House Democrats claimed that GOP leaders had cut them out of the congressional review that would be triggered if Trump proposed to terminate or suspend the Russia sanctions. But Republicans rejected the complaint and blamed Democrats for holding up the bill.
The review requirement in the sanctions bill is styled after 2015 legislation pushed by Republicans and approved in the Senate that gave Congress a vote on whether then-President Barack Obama could lift sanctions against Iran. That measure, which never reached the president’s desk, reflected Republican complaints that Obama had overstepped the power of the presidency and needed to be checked by Congress.
As House Republican leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan chafed at the suggestion that they were doing the White House’s bidding by not taking up the measure immediately, the administration sought to pressure members by insisting that the legislation would unduly hamstring the president.
Officials argued that Trump would be effectively handcuffed — deprived of the power to ease or lift the sanctions as he saw fit. The White House pushed to remove language giving Congress the ability to block such actions.
The North Korea sanctions bill included in the sanctions package originally cleared the House by a 419-1 vote, and House Republicans became frustrated the Senate didn’t move quickly on the measure given the vast bipartisan support it received. The sanctions bar ships owned by North Korea, or by countries that refuse to comply with United Nations resolutions against it, from operating in American waters or docking at U.S. ports. Goods produced by North Korea’s forced labor would be prohibited from entering the United States.
The sanctions package imposes mandatory penalties on people involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program and anyone who does business with them. The measure would apply terrorism sanctions to the country’s Revolutionary Guard and enforce an arms embargo.
“Given the many transgressions of Russia, and President Trump’s seeming inability to deal with them, a strong sanctions bill such as the one Democrats and Republicans have just agreed to is essential.”
— Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.