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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 TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration 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 ThuneThrough a national commitment to youth sports, we can break the obesity cycle Florida politics play into disaster relief debate GOP chairman: FEMA has enough money for Hurricane Michael 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 McConnellJuan Williams: Trump’s policies on race are more important than his rhetoric It’s Mitch McConnell’s Washington – and we’re just living in it Trump makes new overtures to Democrats 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 RyanElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Paul Ryan to campaign for 25 vulnerable House Republicans GOP super PAC pushes back on report it skipped ad buys for California's Rohrabacher, Walters 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 SchumerFive takeaways from the final Tennessee Senate debate Schumer rips Trump 'Medicare for all' op-ed as 'smears and sabotage' GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter 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 PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump says 'rogue killers' could be behind missing journalist | Sends Pompeo to meet Saudi king | Saudis may claim Khashoggi killed by accident | Ex-VA chief talks White House 'chaos' | Most F-35s cleared for flight GOP strategist says Trump is taking 'appropriate stance' with Saudi Arabia Saudi Embassy in DC cancels National Day celebration amid uproar over missing journalist 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 CoatsOvernight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Senators seek US intel on journalist's disappearance | Army discharged over 500 immigrant recruits in one year | Watchdog knocks admiral over handling of sexual harassment case Lawmakers seeking intel on alleged Saudi plot against journalist It’s not just foreign state-owned telecom posing a threat  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 CorkerDemocrats torch Trump for floating 'rogue killers' to blame for missing journalist Trump to send Pompeo to meet Saudi king Trump defends 0B US arms sale to Saudi Arabia 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 CornynTrump defends 0B US arms sale to Saudi Arabia Florida politics play into disaster relief debate O’Rourke faces pivotal point in Texas battle with Cruz 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 FlakeKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Live coverage: McSally clashes with Sinema in Arizona Senate debate Overnight Defense: Trump says 'rogue killers' could be behind missing journalist | Sends Pompeo to meet Saudi king | Saudis may claim Khashoggi killed by accident | Ex-VA chief talks White House 'chaos' | Most F-35s cleared for flight 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 GrahamBrunson release spotlights the rot in Turkish politics and judiciary Saudi Arabia, Turkey to form joint investigation into Khashoggi disappearance Democrats must end mob rule 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 GardnerDemocrats must end mob rule GOP senators praise Haley as 'powerful' and 'unafraid' Democrats won’t let Kavanaugh debate die 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 RubioDating app for Trump supporters leaked its users data on launch day: report Overnight Defense: Trump says 'rogue killers' could be behind missing journalist | Sends Pompeo to meet Saudi king | Saudis may claim Khashoggi killed by accident | Ex-VA chief talks White House 'chaos' | Most F-35s cleared for flight Democrats torch Trump for floating 'rogue killers' to blame for missing journalist MORE (R-Fla.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenOvernight Defense: Trump says 'rogue killers' could be behind missing journalist | Sends Pompeo to meet Saudi king | Saudis may claim Khashoggi killed by accident | Ex-VA chief talks White House 'chaos' | Most F-35s cleared for flight Democrats torch Trump for floating 'rogue killers' to blame for missing journalist Senators concerned as Trump official disputes UN climate change warning 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 Collins'Suspicious letter' mailed to Maine home of Susan Collins The Kavanaugh debate was destructive tribalism on steroids: Here’s how we can stop it from happening again Conservative group launches ad campaign thanking Collins after Kavanaugh vote 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."