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Tougher Russia sanctions face skepticism from Senate Republicans

Tougher Russia sanctions face skepticism from Senate Republicans

An effort to slap new financial penalties on Russia ahead of the midterms is facing pushback from Senate Republicans who question whether that's the best approach.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are under pressure to act amid growing concern that Moscow is trying to influence the November elections, with control of Congress hanging in the balance.

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 rhetoric in Helsinki, more indictments in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s probe and reports of Russian hacking efforts against Democratic senators have increased scrutiny on what action, if any, Congress will take to respond.

But GOP senators are becoming increasingly skeptical that passing a new bill — roughly a year after Congress imposed stiff penalties on Moscow — will be enough to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from interfering with congressional campaigns.

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“Obviously what we want is a change in behavior, right?” said 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 (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “We’ve inflicted a lot of pain but thus far there’s been no change in behavior.”

Senators emphasize that while they want to prevent Russia from interfering in U.S. elections, they aren't sure how to accomplish that. They’re also questioning if sanctions legislation should be the only option for the U.S.

“I think we need to increase our pressure on Putin and those around him to modify behavior,” said Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranSenate Republicans demand Google hand over memo advising it to hide data vulnerability Overnight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Missing journalist strains US-Saudi ties | Senators push Trump to open investigation | Trump speaks with Saudi officials | New questions over support for Saudi coalition in Yemen Senators demand answers on Trump administration backing of Saudi coalition in Yemen MORE (R-Kan.).

“But are there other tools that we have besides sanctions that also could be included in that?” he said, pointing to export controls and restrictions on U.S. business investments.

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsOn The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Lawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks GOP shrugs off dire study warning of global warming MORE (R-S.D.) added that lawmakers are trying to figure out the “appropriate tactics” to make Russia reconsider its election meddling efforts.

The Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Banking Committee are slated to hold hearings on issues ranging from NATO to broader Russian policy. But those hearings won’t take place until after senators return from a two-week recess, meaning any legislative action will likely be pushed back to the fall, even closer to the midterms.

Members of the Banking Committee were briefed this past week by administration officials on the implementation and effectiveness of the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which could provide guidance for new measures.

But Sen. Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoLawmakers, Wall Street shrug off Trump's escalating Fed attacks GOP loads up lame-duck agenda as House control teeters Republicans shift course after outside counsel falters MORE (R-Idaho) — the chairman of the Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over sanctions — is not convinced that new legislation is the way to go.

“Well, I don’t know, I guess I’m not going to register an opinion on that yet because right now we need to do the investigative work and get exactly what the options are,” Crapo said when asked if there was momentum behind passing legislation.

Fellow committee member Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottOvernight Health Care — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Senators face Wednesday vote on Trump health plans rule | Trump officials plan downtime for ObamaCare website | Lawmakers push for action on reducing maternal deaths Bipartisan group of senators ask Trump to increase focus on maternal deaths 7 law enforcement officers shot in South Carolina MORE (R-S.C.) said he would support additional sanctions legislation if it would be “helpful,” but said it’s unclear yet if that’s the case.

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “I think the question is: How do you have the ultimate impact of changing Russia’s behavior to the level that we would find meaningful?”

“I’m not sure what additional legislative vehicles would get us there,” he added.

Talk of new legislation on Capitol Hill comes as Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election, despite findings from both the U.S. intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Hours after the administration’s top five national security officials spoke at a White House press briefing — part of an effort to show the administration is confronting Russia — Trump decried the “Russian hoax” during a rally in Pennsylvania and touted his “great meeting” with Putin.

Any new legislation would likely have to overcome pushback from Trump’s staunchest congressional allies, as well as a White House that has been wary of efforts by Congress to insert itself into foreign policy. Legislation proponents also face a tight calendar if they want to get a bill to Trump’s desk before the midterms: The House is out until September and expected to leave town again for the back half of October.

Meanwhile, there are growing concerns on and off Capitol Hill about Russia’s continued effort to interfere in U.S. policy.

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillElection 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 GOP Senate candidate: Kavanaugh 'debacle' 'hugely motivating' to Missouri voters Democrats hold fading odds of winning Senate this November MORE (D-Mo.), one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this year, confirmed that Russia had attempted to hack her campaign. Facebook announced late last month that it had removed 32 pages and accounts involved in "inauthentic behavior.”

“Some feel that we as a society are sitting in a burning room, calmly drinking a cup of coffee, telling ourselves, 'This is fine,' ” Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrCollusion judgment looms for key Senate panel The National Trails System is celebrating 50 years today — but what about the next 50 years? Key conservation fund for parks set to expire MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said during a hearing this past week. “That's not fine.”

But even as frustration with Russian meddling has simmered, smaller efforts in the Senate have been shot down.

Republicans twice blocked a bipartisan resolution to support the intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, with GOP lawmakers calling it a distraction. They also rejected additional election security funding, saying states hadn’t yet spent the initial $380 million.

Republican leadership, including 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.) and 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.), have left the door open to passing new sanctions legislation if the committees responsible for vetting a bill sign off on it.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced wide-ranging legislation on Friday that 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.), who helped crafted the proposal, termed the “sanctions bill from hell.”

In addition to new sanctions, the bill would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate if Trump wanted to withdraw from NATO, and the State Department would have to determine if Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism.

Negotiations continue around a bipartisan 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.) that would slap new penalties on Russia if, in the future, the director of national intelligence determines Moscow is meddling in elections.

Rubio — who has said there are parts of the bill that need to be “altered and refined” — told reporters that he has heard some “well-founded” concerns from colleagues about the bill, including the potential for sanctions to have “unintended consequences” or the director of national intelligence possibly having unilateral authority to impose new sanctions.

When asked separately about ongoing discussions, Rubio said the talks were not about watering down the bill but “largely about picking the right” sanctions.

Corker told The Hill that discussions were underway with Rubio, Van Hollen, Crapo and their staffs to “try to make sure the legislation that is crafted has the desired outcome.”

“What we would hope, and I’m not sure we will be able to get there, but by the time we come back from recess I’m hoping to be able to sit down and be in a really good place as it relates to what we think are the kinds of things that might generate the desired outcome,” Corker said.

Corker told reporters last month that he believed Congress would pass new Russia legislation. But since then, he’s not so sure.

“I don’t know. That’s the process we’re going through right now,” he told The Hill on Wednesday. “We’ve put a lot of sanctions in place. It’s created a lot of pain. But the Russians are still doing the same things they’ve been doing, right?”