Clinging to a procedural technicality, the GOP delays an agonizing choice on Russia policy.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) faced a deeply unappetizing political calculus this week after the Senate passed by an overwhelming margin an aggressive sanctions bill targeting Russia.
If Ryan brought the bill to the floor, it would likely pass, because it had enough Iran-related measures to ensure Republican support, and no one wants to look weak on Russia right now. If he referred it one of several committees with jurisdiction on the issue, the bill may die a death by a thousand cuts. Or, Ryan could introduce his own measure, creating a split with the Senate and more differences to be resolved.
The measure, passed by a 97-to-2 margin in the Senate, would write key existing sanctions on Russia into law and further target Russian energy firms and its defense-industrial complex. It represents a stunning rebuke of the Trump administration, with one Hill aide describing it as a “congressional takeover of Russia policy.”
“It’s a bill that any administration would hate,” said the congressional source. “It’s a serious insult to the president.”
On Tuesday Ryan fell back on a constitutional technicality to stall the measure. The bill, which significantly ratchets up sanctions on both Russia and Iran, violates the origination clause of the Constitution, he argued, referring to the requirement that any bill raising revenue originate in the House.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, told Foreign Policy that the bill cannot be considered by the House in its current form and that the speaker will “determine the next course of action” after consulting with the Senate.
The Trump administration, like any White House, would normally be able to push back against the tough Senate measures, which constrain executive authority and break ranks with European allies. But Trump is currently hobbled by multiple investigations into possible connections between his campaign and Russian operatives, which would make any House concessions on sanctions look like a handout to the Kremlin.
Tuesday’s procedural machinations reveal an extraordinary political dynamic on the Hill, as Congress has in recent weeks moved to straitjacket the president in his typical latitude to carry out foreign affairs.
Indeed, after its passage, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, openly acknowledged the measure was a congressional power-grab. “It marks a significant shift of power back to the people’s representatives,” Corker wrote on Twitter.
Senate Democrats quickly seized on the explosive politics of the Russia scandal to lambaste the delay in the House.
“House Republicans are considering using a procedural excuse to hide what they’re really doing: Covering for a president who has been far too soft on Russia,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told lawmakers last week that he opposed the measure, but the White House has so far kept a fairly low profile on the issue. Ryan’s procedural move on Tuesday may provide them with time to tweak the measure and water down its key components.
The Senate measure would write into law sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama in retaliation for Russian meddling in the 2016 election and its seizure of Crimea in 2014. Obama imposed those sanctions by executive order — which Trump has the ability lift at any time — and congressional codification of those measures would also require an act of congress to undo them.
The bill would severely undermine high-tech energy exploration and exports by Russian oil and gas firms, would hobble Moscow’s ability to sell arms abroad, and includes tools to scuttle the development of the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank hawkish on Russia issues, described the measures as “monumental” in an analysis.
Russian officials are furious at the bill, which if ultimately passed would ratchet up tensions between Moscow and Washington, which are already escalating in battlefields from the Baltic to Syria. One Hill aide described Russian officials in Washington as “apoplectic” about the proposal.
Russian officials in Washington have told lawmakers that if the measure passes they will have no choice but to respond, though it remains unclear exactly how Moscow would retaliate.
By eliminating Trump’s ability to maneuver, the Senate bill may lock Russia and the United States into a path of confrontation, and how far Moscow is willing to go in the current game of brinkmanship represents one of the key questions for American policy in Congress and the White House, the congressional aide said.
Already, relations between Washington and Moscow are worsening. On Monday, the Russian military said any American war plane west of the Euphrates in Syria would be considered a legitimate target after U.S. forces downed a Syrian air force jet on Sunday. On Monday, a Russian fighter jet flew within five feet of a U.S. plane over the Baltic Sea. Many fear that an expanded and locked-in sanctions regime could push the Kremlin to test the outer limits of its adventurism.
Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet in July, and if the sanctions bill is still hanging in the balance, the American leader’s hand could be strengthened. He could tell Putin that he is dealing with a group of hard-line lawmakers in Congress and that he lacks the ability to maneuver against the sanctions bill because of Russian interference in the election on his behalf.
Trump could claim that he requires a concrete move from Russia to improve relations if he is to kill the sanctions bill.
But’s it not clear just what that could be. After three years of combat, Moscow isn’t likely to abandon the separatist forces it supports in eastern Ukraine. Nor is Moscow about to pull the plug on its alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and give up its position in the eastern Mediterranean. There’s little reason to believe that the Kremlin will stop seeking to divide the European Union, interfere with Western elections, or intimidate smaller neighbors.
At best, Putin could conceivably pledge to implement the Minsk agreement to end fighting in eastern Ukraine — but that’s a promise he has made and broken more than once.
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