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 TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit 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 ThuneSenators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill Senators scramble to save infrastructure deal GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden 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 McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing 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 RyanRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Trump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece 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 SchumerChuck Schumer84 mayors call for immigration to be included in reconciliation Senate infrastructure talks on shaky grounds Could Andrew Cuomo — despite scandals — be re-elected because of Trump? 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) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions 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 CoatsBiden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Former Trump officials including Fiona Hill helped prepare Biden for Putin summit: report Will the real Lee Hamiltons and Olympia Snowes please stand up? 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 CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  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 CornynBiden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division Federal officials abroad are unprotected — in a world of increasing volatility 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 FlakeBiden nominates former Sen. Tom Udall as New Zealand ambassador Biden to nominate Jane Hartley as UK ambassador: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Voting rights will be on '22, '24 ballots 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 GrahamEight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division GOP sees debt ceiling as its leverage against Biden DACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats 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 GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms 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 RubioGOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden Bipartisan congressional commission urges IOC to postpone, relocate Beijing Games Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks MORE (R-Fla.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenSenate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines Civil rights activist Gloria Richardson dies Senate Democrats hit speedbumps with big spending plans 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 Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today 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."