White House plans to push House GOP for friendlier Russia sanctions deal

The White House plans to work with House Republicans on administration-friendly changes to the Senate’s overwhelmingly bipartisan bill that slaps new sanctions on Russia and curbs President Donald Trump’s power to ease penalties against Moscow, according to a senior administration official.

The White House is concerned that the legislation would tie its hands on U.S.-Russia relations, a sentiment publicly expressed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But Senate Democrats fear the White House may go overboard in preserving its power to talk to Russia and seek to defang the sanctions bill — which passed 98-2 on Thursday in one of the year’s most significant displays of bipartisanship.

“I’m concerned about it, but I don’t really have the ability to dictate what the White House says to the House,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said in an interview. “I can’t imagine the House would want to be apologists for Russian behavior after the combined weight of the intelligence communities all weighing in saying, ‘Look, they attacked the United States’.”

The administration official emphasized that the White House supports sanctions on Russia and that the political ramifications of any veto have not been discussed yet. As the State Department actively engages with lawmakers, the White House is confident it has allies in the House who are also concerned about the prospect of breaking with precedent and limiting the executive branch’s control over sanctions.

It’s so far unclear how the House GOP would receive any White House entreaties to restore some of Trump’s power over sanctions that the Senate voted to claw back. House Republicans have started to review the Senate-passed bill and are likely to take it up in the coming weeks, according to an aide.

But Senate Democrats fret that the frenetic news cycle may make it easier for Trump — who has repeatedly offered praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin and is mired in an FBI probe into possible collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin — to undercut a sanctions deal designed to punish Moscow for meddling in last year’s election.

“I’m afraid that the level of awareness isn’t where it should be,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “And we’re going to come back and ask ‘How could this accommodation to Russia have happened?’ if this bill is watered down.”

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who helped negotiate the sanctions package as the Banking Committee’s top Democrat, told POLITICO he has heard the Trump administration is reaching out to House members “to slow it, block it.”

“This is not something the administration is calling for us to do,” Brown said. “I applaud the courage of a number of my Republican colleagues who said no to the administration and did the right thing for the country to keep a foreign power out of our elections.”

The Senate’s Russia sanctions agreement, crafted by senior members of both parties, would impose new penalties on Moscow’s defense, military intelligence, and energy sectors, among others. The deal also would convert existing sanctions into law, potentially complicating any removal by the White House, and allow Congress to block Trump from easing or ending sanctions with a two-thirds majority vote.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) predicted earlier this week that Trump would not veto any sanctions package that reached his desk. Hailing the Senate deal’s impact after its passage, Corker tweeted that the Russia measure “marks a significant shift of power back to the people’s representatives, a priority of mine since becoming the lead Republican on” his committee.

However, Tillerson earlier this week signaled his displeasure with any sanctions bill that would force the U.S. to “close the channels off” with Russia. While the White House has not taken an official position on the bill, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday tried to project toughness on Russia while appearing to express concerns about the Senate legislation.

“We believe the existing executive branch sanctions regime is the best tool for compelling Russia to fulfill its commitments,” Sanders told reporters Thursday, adding that the Senate deal "needs to go through the House, and we don’t have a final product yet to weigh in."

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert also declined to take a formal position on the Senate bill until the House takes up its own approach. Nauert underscored the administration’s desire to achieve a better relationship with Putin’s government, particularly on anti-terrorism issues.

"We continue to look for areas in which both parties can work together," Nauert told reporters Thursday. "We’ve talked about how we believe the United States and Russia can work together to fight ISIS."

The Senate made a veto threat somewhat more difficult by attaching its Russia package to an Iran sanctions bill that boasts support on both sides of the aisle and in the administration. Should the House take a different approach to Trump’s Moscow policy, the lopsided vote in the upper chamber likely would give the Senate a strong position heading into any conference talks.

“I just cannot fathom how House Republicans could ultimately, with everything that’s going on with Russia’s nefarious actions, try to either deep-six the bill or dramatically change it,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “That leaves the Republicans saying they don’t want to do anything on Russia.”

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) has affirmed his interest in a bipartisan bill that sanctions Russia for its documented cyberattacks during the election — meddling that Trump has repeatedly dismissed as little more than a Democratic excuse for defeat. The full House approved new sanctions last month on entities connected to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s violent government, including Russian companies, that the Senate has yet to consider.

"We are looking at ways of sending an additional message" to Russia, Royce said at a committee meeting last month, highlighting two Democratic bills that would sanction Moscow for its involvement in electoral meddling.

But Senate Democrats who pressed hard to win the strongest possible Russia sanctions deal remain alarmed over its fate in the House. Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he wouldn’t be surprised if the administration aimed to dilute the Senate’s bill, given that "the president has refused to acknowledge that we have a problem with the Russians involved in our elections.”

Asked if he feared that Trump’s team could secure its preferred Russia changes with little public scrutiny, Durbin said only: "Yes."

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