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 Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE’s rhetoric in Helsinki, more indictments in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump 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 CorkerTrump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' Press: How 'Nervous Nancy' trumped Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment 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) MoranOvernight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale Senate votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale 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 RoundsHouse panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa August recess under threat as yearly spending bills pile up 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 CrapoDemocrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt Senate Finance leaders in talks on deal to limit drug price increases House panel to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency project 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 ScottThe Hill's Morning Report - Democrats frustrated by Hope Hicks's silence Only black GOP senator Tim Scott calls reparations a 'non-starter' On The Money: Trump weighs emergency declaration for Mexico tariffs | GOP senators look to rein in Trump on trade | Powell says Fed may cut rates if trade war hurts economy 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 McCaskillConservatives spark threat of bloody GOP primaries Congress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Lobbying world 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 BurrHillicon Valley: Senate bill would force companies to disclose value of user data | Waters to hold hearing on Facebook cryptocurrency | GOP divided on election security bills | US tracking Russian, Iranian social media campaigns GOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP frets about Trump's poll numbers 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 RyanBooker prepping for first 2020 debate with bicep curls Democratic debates: What the top candidates need to do Paul Ryan praises Trump: 'He's not taking any crap' MORE (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi: Congress will receive election security briefing in July Adam Scott calls on McConnell to take down 'Parks & Rec' gif Trump says he spoke to Pelosi, McConnell on border package 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 GrahamBooker calls for hearings on reports of ICE using solitary confinement GOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need exit strategy with Iran | McConnell open to vote on Iran war authorization | Senate panel advances bill to restrict emergency arms sales 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 RubioGOP lays debate trap for 2020 Democrats Mellman: Are primary debates different? Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court MORE (R-Fla.) and Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenVan Hollen proposes raising estate tax to boost Social Security Trump planning Air Force One flyover during July 4 celebration at Mall: report Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw 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?”