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 TrumpMinneapolis erupts for third night, as protests spread, Trump vows retaliation Stocks open mixed ahead of Trump briefing on China The island that can save America 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 ThuneFrustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US death toll nears 100,000 as country grapples with reopening GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation COVID-19 workplace complaints surge; unions rip administration Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks 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 RyanTwitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here's why Lobbying world John Ratcliffe is the right choice for director of national intelligence — and for America 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 SchumerVA hospitals mostly drop hydroxychloroquine as coronavirus treatment Democrats call on FTC to investigate allegations of TikTok child privacy violations Lawmakers introduce bill to invest 0 billion in science, tech research 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 (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout 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 PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Government watchdog: 'No evidence' Pompeo violated Hatch Act with Kansas trips Inspector general fired over leaks had been cleared of wrongdoing before ouster: report 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 CoatsGerman lawmaker, US ambassador to Germany trade jabs Intelligence agencies have hired outside consultants to improve communication with Trump: report Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief 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 CorkerRomney is only GOP senator not on new White House coronavirus task force McConnell, Romney vie for influence over Trump's trial RNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' 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 CornynGOP senators urge Trump not to restrict guest worker visas Castro, Warren, Harris to speak at Texas Democratic virtual convention Democratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight 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 Flake'Never Trump' Republicans: Fringe, or force to be reckoned with? The Memo: Can the Never Trumpers succeed? Former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake says he will not vote for Trump 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 GrahamSenate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Comey, Rice, Clapper among GOP senator's targets for subpoenas amid Obama-era probe Schumer: GOP should 'stop sitting on their hands' on coronavirus bill 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 GardnerThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Cuomo rings the first opening bell since March The Democrats' out-party advantage in 2020 The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip 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 RubioTrump administration designates B of PPP funds for community lenders The Memo: Trump's Scarborough tweets unsettle his allies House passes bill that would sanction Chinese officials over Xinjiang camps MORE (R-Fla.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenSenate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers Lawmakers urge Trump to cancel DC's July 4 event: 'Impossible to put on safely' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Mnuchin: More COVID-19 congressional action ahead 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 CollinsOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Unemployment claims now at 41 million with 2.1 million more added to rolls; Topeka mayor says cities don't have enough tests for minorities and homeless communities Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits 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."