GOP-controlled Congress nears legislative triumph — on Russia

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The House on Tuesday is poised to pass legislation limiting the president’s ability to unilaterally lift sanctions on Russia, which the Trump administration initially opposed.

Lacking the votes to block the bill, President Trump will likely sign it in the coming weeks even though the White House is officially keeping its options open.

{mosads}Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate are expected to come together to pass a bipartisan package imposing stiffer sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea that has stalled for weeks. The delays triggered Democratic accusations that the Trump administration was trying to kill the legislation to curry favor with Russia.

While prior administrations of both parties have lobbied against various sanctions bills — citing the need for freedom from the legislative branch to make diplomatic decisions — the ongoing Russia controversies have created a perception problem for the White House. In the end, the GOP-led House and Senate pushed hard to move this bill despite major concerns from the administration.

House Republicans aren’t expected to be able to send top legislative priorities they campaigned on, such as healthcare or tax reform, to Trump’s desk before leaving for the August recess at the end of this week.

Instead, one of the biggest legislative accomplishments slated to become law this year will be a measure constraining Trump. It could also lead to more frostiness in the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

The Russia, Iran, and North Korea Sanctions Act will be considered under an expedited process that requires a two-thirds majority for passage. That also makes it veto-proof, assuming the Senate clears the bill by a similar margin. Last month, only two members of the upper chamber voted against the Senate measure.

In addition to establishing new sanctions on the three countries, the bill grants Congress the power to block Trump from lifting sanctions. The Trump administration had pushed Republicans to ensure the president would have flexibility with sanctions policy, but lawmakers ultimately agreed to a bill that does not fully accede to White House demands.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated on Monday that the administration has warmed to the legislation.

Asked if Trump will sign it, Sanders responded: “He’s looking over where it stands exactly at this point, and we’ll keep you guys posted on that decision. I think the important part of that is the president pretty much supports sanctions on those countries and wants to make sure they remain, but at the same time he wants to make sure we get good deals, and those two things are both very important for the president.”

Trump, who vowed during the campaign to have a friendlier relationship with Russia than his predecessors, issued a tweet Sunday complaining about the “phony Russian Witch Hunt.” Five minutes later, without specifically mentioning the Russia investigations, Trump wrote, “It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President.”

The vote on the sanctions package will take place against the backdrop of a big week for the federal Russia investigations. On Monday, Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner privately met with the Senate Intelligence Committee, becoming the first Trump family member to be interviewed by congressional investigators as part of the probes into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Kushner will be back on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, this time to meet with the House Intelligence Committee.

“Let me be very clear: I did not collude with Russia, nor do I know of anyone else in the campaign who did so,” Kushner said at the White House after his interview in the Senate.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort are negotiating with Senate Judiciary Committee leaders for interviews behind closed doors.

While the White House appears to be on board with the sanctions bill now, it’s not what the president initially wanted. Marc Short, Trump’s top liaison to Capitol Hill, warned earlier this month that restricting the Trump administration’s power over sanctions could make it hard to react quickly to diplomatic circumstances.

“What our concern is, is that the legislation we believe sets an unusual precedent of delegating foreign policy to 535 members of Congress by not including certain national security waivers that have always been consistently part of sanctions bills in the past,” Short said at a press briefing.

Furthermore, top Trump aides have been pushing the State Department to restore Russian access to two diplomatic compounds in New York and Maryland that were seized by the U.S. in the waning days of the Obama administration in retaliation for Russia’s election interference. U.S. officials have said they believe the compounds were used for Russian intelligence-gathering purposes.

Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Monday that he has “some questions with the bill.”

But when asked by CNN’s Poppy Harlow if supporting the president meant giving him “unbridled power” over sanctions, Abraham replied: “No, not at all. We have to have constraints on Congress, on the president, on all aspects of society.”

House Republicans have passed a litany of bills they point to as evidence of meeting promises, like repealing ObamaCare, unwinding the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law and cracking down on sanctuary cities. But those bills have little chance of reaching Trump’s desk this year.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) called the Russia sanctions package an “important issue” but maintained talks about moving a budget to start work on tax reform would be a top priority for Republicans over the upcoming recess.

“While the votes may not be occurring on every issue, the member discussions in preparation [on the budget] are continuing,” Brady told reporters in the Capitol on Monday.

Emerging from a leadership meeting in the Speaker’s office, Republican Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer (Ind.) also downplayed the sanctions vote.

“It’s an area we need to act,” Messer said. But he added: “When I talk to voters back home, they’re not focused on Russia. … The Russia issue is not a factor with everyday Hoosiers.”

It’s unclear at this point whether the White House will tout the bill as a victory by having a public signing ceremony.

After the Senate passed its sanctions bill last month, House members subsequently flagged that it violated the constitutional requirement that all revenue-raising measures originate in the lower chamber.

Senators then approved a procedural fix, only for House Democrats to raise objections to a provision requested by GOP leadership that prevented them from forcing a vote to block the Trump administration from lifting sanctions.

The compromise unveiled early Saturday would allow either the House majority or minority leader to introduce a resolution of disapproval to block sanctions.

Jonathan Easley and Naomi Jagoda contributed.

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