Obstacles mount for quick action on Russia sanctions

Obstacles mount for quick action on Russia sanctions
© Anna Moneymaker

Legislation that would slap new financial penalties on Russia is running into a familiar obstacle: congressional inertia.

Top Republican senators are warning that Congress won’t approve new sanctions quickly, even though many in the upper chamber want to pass something in the wake of the Helsinki summit.

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Complicating the path for the flurry of bills, two key Senate committees are first planning to hold a slate of hearings related to Russia and existing sanctions legislation that will likely run through August. The House, meanwhile, is leaving town this week until September with no plans to pass a bill.

The congressional calendar ensures that any fight over Russia sanctions gets dragged into the fall and pushed against the partisan midterm election landscape, where many Republicans are fighting for their political lives.

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 (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, brushed aside questions about why a bill isn’t moving faster, saying senators don’t do “ready-fire-aim” policies.

“The Helsinki press conference was a sad day for our country and everyone knows it, but still, when you move ahead with laws and sanctions, hearings are appropriate,” he said. “Moving a bill three days after a deplorable press conference is not an intelligent thing to do.”

Corker, a critic of President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE who spearheaded a 2017 Russia sanctions bill, added that senators want to be “methodical” and not “rush in with our hair on fire.”

Trump sparked widespread backlash when he refused to denounce Russia’s election meddling during a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland.

His rhetoric was considered by most lawmakers to be a political disaster and forced Republicans to go on defense to verbally distance themselves from the president, whose warmer stance toward Putin  has mystified members of his own party.

A flurry of potential legislative responses to Trump’s rhetoric has been floated: A bill from Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioMilley says calls to China were 'perfectly within the duties' of his job Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE (R-Fla.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenBottom line Spendthrift Democrats ignore looming bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare Progressive pollster: 65 percent of likely voters would back polluters tax MORE (D-Md.) to slap penalties on Russia if the director of national intelligence determines it meddled in a future election is picking up more bipartisan support. Meanwhile, Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Trump offers sympathy for those charged with Jan. 6 offenses Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE (R-S.C.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezBiden threatens more sanctions on Ethiopia, Eritrea over Tigray conflict Failed drug vote points to bigger challenges for Democrats Overnight Defense & National Security — Blinken heads to the hot seat MORE (D-N.J.) are drafting a bill that would automatically impose tough new sanctions on Russia.

“I’m doing everything but the kitchen sink,” Graham told reporters about his upcoming bill.

In addition, Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerProtecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program MORE (R-Colo.) has legislation that would ask the State Department to determine if Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism, which would trigger automatic sanctions.

But none of those bills will move this summer.

Both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Banking Committee, chaired by Sen. Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoThe Energy Sector Innovation Credit Act is an industry game-changer The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill Wyden asks White House for details on jet fuel shortage amid wildfire season MORE (R-Idaho), announced this week that they would hold a series of hearings to examine a 2017 sanctions bill that placed new penalties on Russia and to weigh any future congressional action that is needed. The move, endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse to act on debt ceiling next week White House warns GOP of serious consequences on debt ceiling Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE (R-Ky.), effectively puts any Senate vote on tougher sanctions on hold until the hearings wrap up.

In addition to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoChristie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group America needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Harris to hold fundraiser for McAuliffe ahead of Virginia governor's race MORE’s testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, the panel is expected to hold an additional hearing next week and then additional meetings once the Senate returns in mid-August. Crapo, meanwhile, noted on Wednesday that he is already having conversations with committee members, but formal panel hearings won’t start until after Aug. 13.

These announcements have sparked criticism from Democrats that Republicans aren’t serious about standing up to Trump months before the midterm election. GOP leaders, on issues ranging from trade to immigration, have shown little appetite for sparking a confrontation with Trump and angering his base — which they will need in November to keep control of Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE (D-N.Y.) knocked Republicans as doing “virtually nothing” since the Helsinki summit.

“Republicans have failed to take meaningful action to hold the president accountable for his foreign policy blunders in Finland. Republicans have offered words of rebuke, statements, disappointed tweets, but they have not backed those words up with the force of action,” he said from the Senate floor this week.

Fifty-one percent of respondents in a recently released Quinnipiac University survey said they believe the Russian government has something on Trump, while 35 percent said it does not.

Schumer touted the polling as “astounding.”

Asked about Schumer accusing Republicans of being unwilling to confront Trump, Corker noted that the Senate passed new Russia sanctions last year in a 98-2 vote despite pushback from the White House.

When a reporter pointed out that Schumer was referring to Republican actions since Helsinki, the GOP senator responded, “Well, Helsinki happened about a week and a half ago. So, you know, there are efforts that are — I can’t even respond to that.”

GOP leadership has appeared open to passing new sanctions legislation. McConnell mentioned Rubio’s bill while speaking to reporters on Tuesday. And Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards Democrats to make pitch Friday for pathway to citizenship in spending bill Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said on Wednesday that he is “certainly interested in doing something else to deter Russia.”

McConnell, in sharp contrast to Trump, has had harsh words for Russia and Putin since the Helsinki summit.

But there are already signs of skepticism that Congress needs to pass tougher Russia sanctions. And formal pushback from the White House as the process moves forward would only feed opposition from Trump’s conservative allies on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken Rand Paul: 'Hatred for Trump' blocking research into ivermectin as COVID-19 treatment Masks and vaccines: What price freedom? MORE (R-Ky.) blasted the talk of tougher sanctions when he opposed a Russia-related resolution last week and accused his colleagues of having “Trump derangement syndrome.” Meanwhile, Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyCrypto debate set to return in force Press: Why is Mo Brooks still in the House? Eshoo urges Pelosi to amend infrastructure bill's 'problematic' crypto regulation language MORE (R-Ala.), while not ruling out supporting additional penalties, has signaled that the United States should work with European allies.

Crapo stressed on Wednesday that he has not decided if the Senate needs to take up a new bill and if his committee would take up already drafted legislation or craft a new proposal.

“We definitely need to be sure that our sanctions regime is very capable to respond. But … we just put together a very extensive sanctions bill last year,” he said. “We are going to have some very extensive briefings and negotiations … and then make that determination.”

The Senate took a symbolic shot at Trump over Russia last week, when it passed a resolution warning Trump not to hand over diplomats to Moscow for questioning. But separate resolutions supporting the intelligence community’s findings that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election have repeatedly been blocked.

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.), whose resolution with Sen. Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsBiden threatens more sanctions on Ethiopia, Eritrea over Tigray conflict Senate Democrats to Garland: 'It's time to end the federal death penalty' Hillicon Valley: Cryptocurrency amendment blocked in Senate | Dems press Facebook over suspension of researchers' accounts | Thousands push back against Apple plan to scan US iPhones for child sexual abuse images MORE (D-Del.) has been blocked twice, demurred when asked how the Senate can get a deal on tougher Russia legislation if senators couldn’t even agree to pass a nonbinding resolution.

“I don’t know,” he told The Hill. “That’s my concern, obviously. This [resolution] ought to be a layup.”