Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash

Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash
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The Senate is considering taking new legislative action to condemn Russia's election meddling as pressure builds on lawmakers to counter President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatens ex-intel official's clearance, citing comments on CNN Protesters topple Confederate monument on UNC campus Man wanted for threatening to shoot Trump spotted in Maryland MORE's much-maligned rhetoric this week.

GOP senators are discussing passing a resolution or even new sanctions just days after 12 Russian intelligence officials were indicted for interfering in the 2016 presidential election and Trump caused uproar by refusing to denounce Moscow's election meddling during a summit in Helsinki.

Trump on Tuesday tried to walk back his comments from a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin the previous day that roiled Washington. Trump told reporters at the White House that he accepted the intelligence community’s findings that Russia tried to meddle in the U.S. presidential election, but then muddied his walk-back by adding that it “could be other people also.”

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Pressing forward with sanctions legislation would likely spark a high-profile showdown with Trump months before the November midterm elections — marking a rare election-year break between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill. But lawmakers are under pressure to act in the wake of Trump's comments.

“I think it’s important for them [Russia] to know that at least here, on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol, there’s broad support for our alliances and broad support for protecting our system from outside tampering,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph Thune15 senators miss votes despite McConnell's criticism of absentees Senate gets to work in August — but many don’t show up GOP leader criticizes Republican senators for not showing up to work MORE (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, told reporters Tuesday.

Congress overwhelmingly slapped new financial penalties on Russia last year despite pushback from the White House. The current fight, however, comes as Republicans are battling to keep control of Congress and have shown little interest in a direct confrontation with Trump.

But Republican leaders in both chambers left the door open on Tuesday to passing new legislation, underscoring the depth of concern on Capitol Hill about Russia.

Asked if there was anything Congress would do besides offer tough-on-Russia rhetoric, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnell15 senators miss votes despite McConnell's criticism of absentees Overnight Health Care: Azar defends approach on drug rebates | Trump presses Senate to act quickly on opioid crisis | Kentucky governor's Medicaid lawsuit tossed Dem senator introduces proposal to rein in Trump on security clearances MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters during a weekly press conference that there were “some possibilities.”

“There's a possibility that we may well take up legislation related to this. In the meantime, I think the Russians need to know that there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it really better not happen again in 2018,” he said.

Across the Capitol, House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanKrystal Ball: GOP tax cut is 'opiate of the massively privileged' Top GOP lawmaker: Tax cuts will lower projected deficit GOP super PAC seizes on Ellison abuse allegations in ads targeting Dems MORE (R-Wis.) said he would be “happy to consider” additional sanctions proposed by a handful of congressional committees.

Pressure is mounting on Congress to take action after Monday's summit in Helsinki, where Trump sparked fierce backlash from traditional allies and former intelligence officials by appearing to side with Putin's denial of Russia's election meddling instead of the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community.

Republicans issued a flurry of statements condemning Russia after the press conference. Democrats, meanwhile, have seized on Trump’s rhetoric, calling it a new line in the sand for their congressional counterparts.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerWith lives at stake, Congress must start acting on health care To make the House of Representatives work again, make it bigger Reforms can stop members of Congress from using their public office for private gain MORE (D-N.Y.) outlined four areas he is seeking cooperation from Republicans: holding public hearings on the Helsinki summit, pressing for the extradition of the 12 Russian nationals indicted last week, for Republicans to stop attacking special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE and for Congress to pass new sanctions legislation.

“Statements are not enough. We need action, and we cannot act unless our Republicans join us in bipartisan action,” he told reporters.

A GOP aide told The Hill that Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTwo men arrested for allegedly spying for Iran in US China moves to keep buying Iranian oil despite US sanctions: report US-Russia cooperation could ensure safer repatriation of Syrian refugees MORE will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next week, where he’ll likely be grilled over the Helsinki meeting.

Some progressives have called for national security officials, including Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsCNN: Trump intel chief not consulted before decision to revoke Brennan's clearance Study: 3 of every 10 House candidate websites vulnerable to hacks West Virginia set to allow smartphone voting for those serving overseas MORE, to step down in protest of Trump's remarks this week. Republicans, however, cautioned that would only cause the administration’s foreign policy to veer farther off course.

“Why would we want to encourage [Defense Secretary James] Mattis or Coats or anyone to leave, OK? That is not in our national security interests, OK? ... It’s cutting your nose off to spite your face,” said GOP Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerForeign Relations senators push back on WH aid cut Schumer blasts Trump over security clearances: This happens in dictatorships Senate GOP targets musicians Ben Folds, Jason Isbell as 'unhinged left' ahead of rally for Dem candidate MORE (Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Republicans are instead focusing on several legislative options, though the path to a vote by the full Senate — where they would need the support of at least 60 senators — remains murky.

GOP senators left a closed-door caucus lunch on Tuesday without a unified game plan. Instead, senators and aides described the talk about pushing back against Russia as largely confined to chatter among members who returned to Washington on Monday in the immediate aftermath of Trump's comments. 

“I think it’s still pretty fresh but I think there is some discussion about what the best path forward would be,” said Majority Whip John CornynJohn Cornyn15 senators miss votes despite McConnell's criticism of absentees Sen. Warner to introduce amendment limiting Trump’s ability to revoke security clearances Sentencing reform deal heats up, pitting Trump against reliable allies MORE (R-Texas), adding that Republicans are “thinking about what else we might do legislatively."

There are early signs of a split over what Republicans believe is their best next step.

Corker used the backlash over Russia to push his legislation requiring congressional approval on tariffs implemented under the guise of national security despite being blocked twice from getting a vote on that bill.

GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeBiden endorses first Latina attorney general candidate in Arizona Primary challenge to Trump? It could help him in 2020 Trump stays out of Arizona's ugly and costly GOP fight MORE (Ariz.) is drafting a resolution to voice support for the intelligence community’s findings that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

He said on Tuesday that he was “putting the finishing touches” on the resolution and that he was looking for the “best vehicle” including potentially asking for unanimous consent, which would require the support of every senator.

GOP Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin Graham2020 hopefuls skeptical of criminal justice deal with Trump Senate gets to work in August — but many don’t show up Graham: Flynn should lose security clearance MORE (S.C.) left the door open to any action targeting Russia but touted a resolution as a step he thought the Senate should take.

He pointed to the Senate Intelligence Committee's assessment released earlier this month that upheld the conclusion of the intelligence community that Russia developed a "clear preference" for then-candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 election and sought to help him win the White House.

“I think now is the time for the Senate to get behind the intel committee’s findings. I would like to do a resolution saying we all support [Richard] Burr [R-N.C.] and [Mark] Warner’s [D-Va.] intel committee about, you know, Russia did interfere, trying to help Trump, no evidence it changed the outcome,” Graham said, referring to the panel's leaders.
 
But other GOP senators shrugged off talk of a resolution, noting senators were already releasing statements condemning Russia’s election meddling. Instead, several senators floated passing legislation that could slap new sanctions on Russia.

“I think there are going to be some movements here to try to rectify — look, this isn’t who we are,” Corker said. “There are things that people are looking at.”

One bill already introduced by Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBusinesses fear blowback from Russia sanctions bill Senate GOP campaign arm asking Trump to endorse McSally in Arizona: report When it comes to drone tech, wildfire officials need the rights tools for the job MORE (R-Colo.) would ask the State Department to determine if Russia is a state sponsor of terror. Another bill from Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP lawmakers raise concerns over research grants to colleges with Confucius Institutes Paid family leave could give new parents a much-needed lifeline GOP looks to injure Nelson over Russia comments MORE (R-Fla.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump showcases ICE ahead of midterm elections Kamala Harris prepares for moment in the spotlight Dem campaign chairman expresses confidence over path to Senate majority MORE (D-Md.) would slap new sanctions on Russia if the director of national intelligence finds that they meddled in future elections.

“I think that bill would send a very strong message about its ongoing and future meddling in our elections,” GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins, seen as possible swing vote, set to meet with Kavanaugh White House weighs clawing back State, foreign aid funding The Hill's Morning Report: Dems have a majority in the Senate (this week) MORE (Maine) said, referring to Rubio’s bill on Tuesday when asked about sanctions legislation.

Cornyn added that the Senate should focus on legislation that had a “sting” for Russia.

“I think what we ought to focus on is additional sanctions rather than just some messaging exercise,” he said. “That was one of the things Sen. Schumer mentioned where I think we could find common ground to turn the screws on Russia."