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Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions

The Senate voted to advance legislation blocking President Trump's plan to lift sanctions against three Russian companies despite an eleventh-hour effort by the administration to kill the bill.

Senators voted 57-42 to begin debating the resolution, with only a simple majority needed to get over the initial hurdle.

Though only a procedural vote, it's the latest foreign policy break between the Trump administration and Senate Republicans, who have been wary of his warmer rhetoric toward Moscow.

It comes amid reports that the president has discussed pulling the United States out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

"I do disapprove of the easing of the sanctions because I think it sends the wrong message to Russia and to the oligarch and close ally of Mr. Putin, Oleg Deripaska, who will in my judgement continue to maintain considerable [ownership] under the Treasury's plan," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters.

In addition to Collins, GOP Sens. John Boozman (Ark.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Steve Daines (Mont.) Cory Gardner (Colo.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), John Kennedy (La.), Martha McSally (Ariz.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.) voted to proceed to the resolution on Tuesday.

The same senators also helped block a separate effort from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to pigeonhole the measure.

The setback for the administration comes after it announced plans late last month to relax sanctions on the three businesses - Rusal, EN+ and EuroSibEnerg - connected to Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Under the 2017 sanctions bill, Democrats are able to force a vote on a resolution to block the administration from lifting the financial penalties.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin led a lobbying effort to try to squelch concerns on Capitol Hill about the decision. He met with House Democrats last week and pitched Senate Republicans during a closed-door lunch Tuesday, hours before the vote.

Mnuchin declined to say if he believed the administration had the votes to prevent the Senate from passing the resolution of disapproval but argued it shouldn't be a "political issue."

But he added that the administration believed the sanctions against the three companies should be lifted because Deripaska's ownership in the entities has fallen below 50 percent.

"We put together an agreement that we think meets the requirements of the laws and the regulations to do this," Mnuchin said.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) echoed Mnuchin in opposing the resolution to block the sanctions from being lifted.

"I will vote 'no' today because this was a hard-fought negotiation resulting in one of the strongest agreements ever, which supports long-standing U.S. sanctions policy and foreign policy toward Russia," he said.

GOP leadership had been tight-lipped about whether they would be able to pull together the simple majority needed to sink the Democratic resolution, noting a swath of their members wanted to hear from Mnuchin.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said "a lot of our members are anxious to ask questions" of the Trump administration before the vote.

"Whether we get on it, is still kind of an open question, I think," Thune said.

McConnell separately knocked Democrats for forcing the Russia vote even as they are blocking a GOP foreign policy bill as part of their shutdown strategy.

"It was all just a farce. The Democratic leader doesn't actually mind doing other business because he now intends to bring a privileged and political stunt of a motion relating to the administration's use of sanctions against Russia," McConnell said.

Democrats needed to win over at least four Republicans to advance the resolution, provided they could also unite their own caucus.

They could still face a 60-vote threshold filibuster of the measure before a final passage vote, which would require them to get 13 GOP senators.

Gardner, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a vulnerable 2020 incumbent, said on Tuesday that he would support the resolution.

"I anticipate voting to overturn the decision by the administration," Gardner told reporters.  

Rubio added that while he "appreciated" the Treasury Department's effort, "for all intents and purposes between his shares, the independent shares that the Russian state owned bank control, and various other individual shareholders I still think he retains operational control ... So they're going to have to do better."

Democrats announced over the weekend that they would force a vote to stop the Trump administration from being able to lift the sanctions.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), making a pitch to his colleagues before the vote, said opposing the resolution would be a "vote to go easy on President Putin and his oligarchs."

"Putin's Russia continues to run rampant over international norms," Schumer added. "Show me the behavior from Vladimir Putin that warrants such relief? I can't think of any. I'll put 90 percent of all Americans can't think of any."

Both chambers would need to pass a resolution of disapproval by Thursday in order to block the administration from lifting sanctions. House Democrats have asked for an extension from the Treasury Department, but Mnuchin declined to discuss the issue on Tuesday.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday he is introducing a resolution to prevent the Trump administration from lifting the sanctions. 

"Today, I am introducing a resolution to prevent the Treasury Department from lifting sanctions on businesses controlled by Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who has been sanctioned for his close relationship to President Putin and activities aimed at harming the interests of the United States," Hoyer said in a statement.

He added that "Deripaska has been key to much of the malign activities Russia directs against the United States, and the Congress must protect the American people against foreign interference and corruption."

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