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Senate push for new Russia sanctions gains momentum

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A long-stalled push to impose new financial penalties on Russia is gaining new life in the Senate.

Leadership, as well as senators in both parties, is negotiating an agreement that would add new financial penalties against Moscow to a separate Iran sanctions bill currently being debated by the Senate. 

The negotiations show new energy, a significant change from as recently as last month, when Russia sanctions appeared to be stalemated with many Republicans wary of getting ahead of the Trump administration. 

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is throwing his support behind the talks, predicting that lawmakers will be offering Russia-related amendments.

{mosads}“I’m encouraged that the chairman of the Foreign Relations and Banking Committees, Sen. [Bob] Corker [R-Tenn.] and Sen. [Mike] Crapo [R-Idaho], have already been in discussion with their respective ranking members to work toward a bipartisan agreement. I support that effort,” he said.

The potential new penalties would come amid investigations into potential contacts between President Trump’s campaign and the Russian hackers who meddled in the presidential election.

Senators stressed that they were still ironing out the scope of what would be included in the Iran sanctions legislation, which is expected to pass the Senate by early next week.

“We’re negotiating that. We don’t have an amendment yet. … We don’t have an agreement yet, a consensus agreement. I think if the [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] amendment is offered and voted on, it will pass,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

But the Iran legislation now marks the best shot in months for the Senate to pass new Russia-related penalties, sparking a flurry of activity around the Capitol. 

McConnell, Corker and Crapo huddled in the Kentucky Republican’s office. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is also involved in the negotiations, while Corker and Cardin have had multiple meetings this week on Russia.

A senior Senate aide said on Wednesday that Schumer, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are “making progress” on securing a vote. 

The penalties “could be for additional sanctions against Russia, or to codify existing sanctions, making it harder to undo them, along the lines of Sen. Cardin’s bill, or a combination of the two,” the aide said. 

Democrats are signaling they are willing to play hardball to get Russia sanctions included in the Iran bill. 

Schumer warned from the Senate floor that it would be hard for his party to support the Iran bill if Republicans back down from the current negotiations over Russia. 

“Our Republican colleagues should realize it will be very difficult to gather Democratic support for final passage of this bill until we deal with Russia sanctions. We feel strongly that we need a tough, effective package of Russia sanctions to move alongside the Iran sanctions. We’re currently negotiating to that end,” he said.

The Cardin-McCain bill would slap financial penalties on Russia for its election interference, as well as ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. It would codify sanctions implemented under the Obama administration by executive order.

Schumer also outlined the offer he made to McConnell: merge the Cardin-McCain bill and a separate bill with Graham’s that would make it harder for Trump to lift sanctions, make any potential changes necessary and allow it come up for a vote.

Cardin said on Wednesday that he plans to introduce that piece of legislation as its own amendment to the Iran sanctions bill, and he expected other lawmakers to offer their own proposals.

“What may be necessary is to have different options [on amendments]. Let members offer their amendments and let the votes be where they may,” he said.  

Asked if she was offering her own Russia amendment or would back Cardin-McCain, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said negotiations are ongoing, but she wants “to see as strong a sanctions bill as possible on the floor.” 

Crapo and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also offered their own Russia sanctions deal late last week. When asked what sort of sanctions Crapo, who chairs the Banking Committee, would like to see included in the Iran bill, a spokeswoman pointed toward their agreement.

The legislation would “codify and strengthen” existing sanctions from former President Barack Obama’s executive orders, as well as include new sanctions on Russian individuals involved in human rights abuses, “malicious cyber activity” and supplying weapons to the administration of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Both Corker and Cardin noted on Wednesday that they were currently reviewing the Crapo-Brown bill.

“I think we’re certainly looking at the Crapo-Brown bill, but we also know there are changes we’re going to want to make to that,” Corker said. 

Top Republican lawmakers, including Corker, have held off on throwing their support behind a sanctions bill since Trump took office, arguing that the new administration needed space to see if it could turn around the U.S.-Russia relationship that grew strained under Obama.

But Corker has increasingly warned that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could pass Russia legislation amid “slow” progress with U.S.-Russia negotiations in Syria, where Moscow supports Assad.

“We’ve had a very good day, and I think we should make some progress, very good progress during this work period,” Corker told The Hill this week.

Corker and Cardin wouldn’t rule out the Foreign Relations Committee passing additional Russia legislation this month but stressed it depended on what ends up in the Iran sanctions bill.

“We had planned to take up Russia this work period, but there is a moving vehicle now. So it might be good to take advantage of a moving vehicle,” Corker said. 

Trump has come under fire from lawmakers in both parties for his warmer tone toward Moscow, and the White House flirted earlier this year with lifting sanctions specifically tied to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News at the time that lifting the financial penalties was “under consideration,” though Trump walked back the comments as premature. 

A White House spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on Wednesday on what the administration’s position is on new sanctions.

Gary Cohn, the director of Trump’s National Economic Council, told reporters late last month that Trump “is looking at it. Right now, we don’t have a position.”

John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, noted on Wednesday that he hadn’t spoken to the White House but appeared confident that new Russia sanctions would garner bipartisan support.

“[I] know we’re going to do Iran sanctions and Russian sanctions together,” he said. “I just think there’s a lot of impatience that Russia meddled in our election and there really hasn’t been a response.”

Tags Barack Obama Ben Cardin Charles Schumer Jeanne Shaheen John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Sherrod Brown

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