The Cable

Senate Sends Revised Sanctions Bill to House for Agonizing Choice

The still-aggressive bill would toughen sanctions on Russia, putting the GOP and White House in a bind.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - FEBRUARY 17:  Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) arrive to speak to the media following lengthy talks at Parliament on February 17, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Putin is in Budapest on a one-day visit, his first visit to an EU-member country since he attended ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions in France in June, 2014.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - FEBRUARY 17: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) arrive to speak to the media following lengthy talks at Parliament on February 17, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Putin is in Budapest on a one-day visit, his first visit to an EU-member country since he attended ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions in France in June, 2014. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The Senate sent back to the House of Representatives an aggressive sanctions package targeting Russia, setting the stage for a clash between House Republican leaders and the White House ahead of President Donald Trump’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin next month.

The Senate approved a technical fix to the sanctions measures on Thursday afternoon, after it had been stalled in the House. The Senate first passed the bill by an 98 to 2 margin earlier this month, but House Republicans delayed the bill with a procedural tactic. The bill now heads back to the House, but it’s unclear when exactly it will be taken up.

The sanctions bill could significantly ratchet up American economic pressure on Moscow by expanding restrictions on the Russian energy sector, levying new sanctions on purchasers of Russian arms, and writing into law sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration through executive actions, which can be reversed at the stroke of a pen. If passed, the bill would require congressional approval in order for the White House to lift sanctions on Russia.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) expressed support for the measure last week, but it’s opposed by the White House, which would like to maintain flexibility in dealing with Moscow.

One Hill staffer has described the measure as a congressional takeover of Russia policy, and White House officials complain that it amounts to an unconstitutional attempt by Congress to write American foreign policy.

Ryan now faces a deeply unappetizing set of political choices. If he brings the bill to the floor as is, it will likely pass and deal a blow to his party’s putative leader in the White House. The Russia sanctions were attached to a separate bill increasing punitive measures on Iran. Cracking down on both states is likely to draw bipartisan support.

Alternatively, Ryan could refer the bill to committee, where it would likely require review by four separate panels claiming jurisdiction. Once in committee, the bill could die by a thousand cuts.

If Ryan moves to amend the bill, Senate Democrats are sure to put up a fight.

“I want to put the House on notice: If they water down the bill, weaken the sanctions, add loopholes to the legislation, they will find stiff resistance here in the Senate,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Thursday.

The intensifying cloud of scandal over the White House has handcuffed the Trump administration’s ability to lobby against the bill. Sprawling congressional and FBI investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and whether any Trump aides conspired with that campaign have put the White House in an awkward spot. If they aggressively lobby against the bill — and experts argue that any White House would fight back against what seems a congressional power grab — they are sure to be accused of giving Moscow a handout.

Thursday’s Senate vote increases pressure on Trump ahead of his meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 summit on July 7 and 8 in Germany. With Congress about to depart for its week-long July 4 recess, the House is unlikely to pass the sanctions measure before Trump and Putin meet.

White House aides have reportedly been tasked with coming up with possible concessions to Moscow, to be proposed during the G20 tete-a-tete and aimed at improving relations. One possible concession includes the return of Russian diplomatic compounds in the United States that were seized in December in retaliation for Russian election meddling. If the House passes the sanctions bill, such concessions would be far more difficult to make, and would require congressional approval.

From another perspective, the sanctions bill also hands Trump a powerful cudgel to wield against Putin. Embroiled in a scandal of Russia’s making, Trump lacks leverage in negotiating with Congress over sanctions on Moscow — but could use any concession from Putin to give him the political cover to tweak, kill, or attempt to veto the sanctions bill.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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