GOP impatience grows over stalled Russia sanctions bill

A key House chairman, frustrated that a Senate-passed Russia sanctions bill has stalled in his chamber, is considering crafting his own plan to punish Moscow — even as White House officials lobby to defang the legislation.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce may write his own Russia sanctions legislation if the House doesn’t take up and pass the Senate bill soon, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

The California Republican’s uneasiness underscores the growing anxiety among House GOP Russia hawks, who are worried that the White House’s clandestine lobbying campaign to water down the bill could make them look soft on Russia. It’s also a hurry-up signal to House GOP leaders, who lawmakers in both parties believe are moving far too slowly.

Marc Short, the White House’s top legislative liaison, spent Monday lobbying Hill offices against key provisions in the legislation, according to a senior administration official. Trump officials argue that the bill ties their hands diplomatically — but that may be part of the point for Hill Republicans who want to take a harder line on Russia than President Donald Trump.

House GOP leaders, meanwhile, are blaming the delay on House Democrats, who have objected to proposed limits on their power to block Trump from easing sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s government — an excuse Democrats reject.

As the bill, which passed 98-2 in the Senate last month, remains mired in the House, Trump administration officials are getting valuable time to push changes to the bill that would give them more leeway to warm diplomatic ties with a longtime U.S. nemesis.

“Russia and Iran must be held accountable for their aggression that undermines our national security, and global stability,” Royce said in a statement for this story. “The sooner we can get this done, the better.”

Royce has long reiterated his interest in a bipartisan sanctions package that would penalize Russia for what U.S. intelligence officials — but not Trump himself — have firmly concluded was a covert bid to disrupt last year’s presidential election.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) asked Royce at a May 25 committee markup to explain why a sanctions bill aimed at punishing the nation for its interference in the election and cybersecurity hacks was pulled from the Foreign Relations committee schedule. Royce responded by vowing that the panel would continue working on a package that he hoped to make bipartisan.

But the Senate took action first on its own proposal soon afterward, adding Russia penalties to an existing Iran sanctions measure.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) worked with Democrats on that sanctions bill, which allows Congress to block any Trump attempt to ease or end penalties against Moscow. The bill also makes it harder for the administration to waive the sanctions and requires certification by the administration on Russian progress before the penalties can be loosened.

The bill’s fate in the House has been uncertain since then, though most GOP insiders say they believe it will pass eventually. House GOP leaders originally raised constitutional concerns with the Senate’s bill, arguing that the sanctions affect revenue and therefore must originate in the House. Working with both parties in the Senate, a technical fix was devised for the so-called “blue-slip” matter.

But GOP leaders also tucked into that “fix” a procedural change removing House Democrats’ ability to force a vote to handcuff Trump from removing sanctions on Russia. In the original bill, any House member could force a vote on blocking Trump from loosening sanctions.

House leadership removed that "privileged status," essentially empowering only Republicans to bring to the floor a resolution that would block Trump from easing the sanctions.

House Democrats quickly objected to the amended bill’s arrival in their chamber last week, holding up the Senate-passed bill. And now GOP leadership is blaming them for the delay.

“House Republicans are prepared to send the Iran-Russia sanctions bill papers back, which will allow the Senate to automatically resend us a fixed bill, but House Democrats are blocking that and demanding their own changes to the bill,” said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong in a statement.

Pelosi spokeswoman Ashley Etienne rejected that charge.

“For weeks House Democrats have been calling for immediate action on the Senate bill and the House GOP has used every trick in the book to stall,” Etienne said by email. “Republicans could put the bipartisan Senate passed Russia sanctions bill on the president’s desk tomorrow, but instead they’re searching high and low for excuses to drag out the process, weaken the bill, and let Russia and the White House off the hook. House Republicans need to end this charade.”

Senior House Republicans also argue that the oil industry’s objections have stalled the bill.
Exxon and Chevron, insiders say, have been complaining to GOP leaders and other members that the legislation could potentially block them from doing business on projects that have Russia connections, hurting their bottom line.

However, sources said Senate GOP staff has argued that’s not the case, as the administration would be able to interpret the provision at issue in a less restrictive fashion for the oil industry. That’s good enough for some people in the House, but GOP leadership sources say they’re still looking at the matter.

Some Russia hawks are starting to wonder if both issues are an excuse to buy time, however. Some Republican senators are nudging the House to simply pass their bill with the pivotal Trump-constraining provisions intact.

“There is no procedural issue — all the House has got to do is pass a sanctions bill,” Corker told reporters Monday night, adding that he has had “very good conversations with Speaker [Paul] Ryan” as well as Royce about passing the Senate’s version of the bill.

“Look, no administration likes for Congress to play a role in anything they’re doing, especially foreign policy, and I understand that,” Corker added. “Could the White House be working against it? They well could be. Have they contacted us to work against it? No.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading proponent of the sanctions bill, said in a brief interview that he was "not surprised" to see the administration push for changes to the Senate’s version.

Amid the delay, White House officials are making their case to scale back the legislation. Short said Monday that the administration supports the Senate’s proposed sanctions on Russia as well as Iran but objects to the bill’s “unusual precedent of delegating foreign policy to 535 members of Congress” by not giving Trump power to waive penalties if he deemed it in the interest of national security.

“The way it’s currently drafted is something we think neither a Democratic nor a Republican administration would support,” Short told reporters, arguing that diplomatic relations fall into the executive branch’s purview.

An administration source argued that the White House’s campaign was entirely about separation of powers and that Trump officials are not shilling for Russia: “That’s not what this is about at all. It really isn’t."

Many on the Hill, however, say that’s hogwash.

Privately, several House GOP insiders told POLITICO they believed the bill would pass the chamber eventually with its current teeth intact. They argued that GOP leaders sincerely need time to work out a procedural matter with Democrats and protesting oil companies, but would probably not cave to the White House.

"We’re telling them no," one senior House GOP aide. "I don’t think they are going to get what they’re asking for.”

The sources said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was working to smooth over the matter — including the concerns of oil companies — but said “that’s a separate issue from the waiver stuff that the White House wants.”

Meanwhile, hawks like Royce are growing impatient.

Last Friday, Royce announced he’d offer an amendment to must-pass defense legislation that would increase sanctions against Russia for developing banned nuclear-tipped missiles.

But the main, unspoken message of the announcement was clear: He wants to get tough on Putin — even if the White House doesn’t.

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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