WASHINGTON—Senate Republicans and Democrats reached agreement late Monday on a new package of sanctions on Russia amid the firestorm over Russia’s meddling in the presidential election and investigations into Moscow’s possible collusion with members of President Donald Trump’s campaign.
Top lawmakers on two committees—Banking and Foreign Relations—announced the deal, which would require a congressional review if a president attempts to ease or end current penalties. The plan also calls for strengthening current sanctions and imposing new ones on corrupt Russian actors, those involved in human rights abuses and those supplying weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Penalties also would be slapped on those responsible for malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government.
The batch of sanctions would be added to a bill imposing penalties on Iran that the Senate is currently debating.
“The amendment to the underlying Iran sanctions bill maintains and substantially expands sanctions against the government of Russia in response to the violation of the territorial integrity of the Ukraine and Crimea, its brazen cyberattacks and interference in elections, and its continuing aggression in Syria,” said Republicans and Democrats on the committees.
A procedural vote on the Russia sanctions is expected June 14, and the measure is expected to get strong bipartisan support. The legislation was worked out by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, of the Banking Committee, and Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., of the Foreign Relations panel.
The legislation also allows new penalties on key elements of the Russia economy, including mining, metals, shipping and railways.
House and Senate committees are investigating Russia’s meddling and potential links to the Trump campaign, with testimony scheduled Tuesday from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a separate probe.
“By codifying existing sanctions and requiring congressional review of any decision to weaken or lift them, we are ensuring that the United States continues to punish President (Vladimir) Putin for his reckless and destabilizing actions,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the top Senate Democrat. “These additional sanctions will also send a powerful and bipartisan statement to Russia and any other country who might try to interfere in our elections that they will be punished.”
The sanctions package is rooted in legislation introduced earlier this year amid concerns on Capitol Hill that Trump may seek to lift sanctions against Russia as part of a plan to forge a partnership between the two countries in key areas, such as counterterrorism. In early January, before Trump was sworn in, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill designed to go beyond the punishments already levied against Russia by the Obama administration and to demonstrate to Trump that forcefully responding to Moscow’s election interference wasn’t a partisan issue.
Then-President Barack Obama in late December ordered sanctions on Russian spy agencies, closed two Russian compounds and expelled 35 diplomats the U.S. said were really spies. Those penalties were on top of existing U.S. sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which have damaged Russia’s economy but had only limited impact on Putin’s behaviour.
A month later, senators introduced another measure that would require the president to get approval from lawmakers before easing Russia sanctions. Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said at the time that the measure was styled after 2015 legislation pushed by Republicans and approved overwhelmingly in the Senate that gave Congress a vote on whether Obama could lift sanctions against Iran. That measure reflected Republican complaints that Obama had overstepped the power of the presidency and needed to be checked by Congress.
The White House said last week it has no plans to scale back existing sanctions against Russia, as relations have soured.
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Trump administration “is committed to existing sanctions against Russia” and will keep them in place “until Moscow fully honours its commitments to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.”
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis on Monday underscored the distrust between Moscow and Washington, telling the House Armed Services Committee that he’s seen nothing to indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is interested in co-operation with the United States.
“Mr. Putin has chosen to be a strategic competitor,” Mattis said.