Ongoing Senate talks on a bipartisan Russia sanctions proposal are testing the ability of powerful GOP chairmen to work together on a package that can avoid imperiling passage of the Iran sanctions bill it could hitch a ride to.
Leaders in both parties say they want to vote on a plan to punish Russia as an amendment to the Iran sanctions bill that senators voted to move ahead with on Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are pressing to convert existing Russia sanctions into law, in order to complicate any possible attempts by President Donald Trump to ease them. Senators would also like to add new penalties. Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) is advocating for his own committee’s bipartisan sanctions framework.
McCain outlined his proposal in a floor speech, saying that "we must take our own side in this fight — not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans."
The Arizona Republican’s preferred amendment would take aim at Russian military intelligence and defense entities as well as those connected to cybersecurity threats while setting up a new Treasury Department task force and supporting State Department pro-democracy activities in the region, among other changes. McCain, Graham, and Schumer are among the backers of a February bill that would tie Trump’s hands on any future easing of sanctions, another top priority for many Democrats.
Senators were hopeful Wednesday that the negotiations would lead to a Russia sanctions vote next week, whether on a merged version of the multiple proposals under consideration or a consensus package that could win bipartisan buy-in. Appetite for a Senate vote to hit Moscow has grown in both parties this year, even as Trump’s administration has suggested that it might consider rolling back some sanctions in exchange for more collaboration against terrorism.
"I am optimistic that they will find a common approach to Russia sanctions," Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in an interview, adding: "I frankly think it’s outrageous that it’s taken us this long to take up and debate a Russia sanctions bill, given that we know they interfered in our 2016 elections and they continue to do aggressive and destabilizing things to our allies in Europe."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) agreed, saying through a spokesman that "the Senate has procrastinated on Russian sanctions for far too long."
Any failure to reach agreement on a Russia sanctions vote could cause trouble for the Iran sanctions bill to which it may get attached. Schumer warned Wednesday that without a deal to vote on punishing Russia, Democrats would find it "very difficult" to cast a vote on passage of the Iran bill, which some in their party wanted to delay in the wake of Wednesday terrorist attacks against Tehran.
"We feel strongly that we need a tough, effective package of Russia sanctions to move alongside the Iran sanctions," Schumer said on the floor Wednesday.
Crapo has worked with the banking panel’s top Democrat, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, on their own sanctions plan, and stopped short of forecasting bipartisan agreement on Wednesday. Asked if his approach would be a possible competing option to the Russia plan backed by Schumer, McCain, and Graham, Crapo told reporters that jurisdiction over sanctions rests in his committee, "so I’d say it in reverse."
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and his committee’s top Democrat, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, are also key players in the Russia talks. Their panel had originally planned to move a separate Russia bill, but Corker suggested that might not be necessary if a deal advances during the Iran debate.
"We had planned to take up Russia this work period, but there is a moving vehicle now," Corker told reporters. "And so it might be good to take advantage of a moving vehicle."
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.