The implosion of Senate Republicans’ Obamacare repeal push could clear space for a bipartisan deal on long-stalled sanctions against Russia to make it to President Donald Trump’s desk as soon as this month, a key GOP chairman said Tuesday.
The Russia sanctions package has been mired in the House after passing the Senate with 98 votes, as House Democrats protest a change that would yank their power to block Trump from easing penalties against Vladimir Putin’s government. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) added a new wrinkle last week by urging that popular North Korea sanctions get attached to the legislation, but Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said his chamber could handle that addition if the likely failure of Obamacare repeal creates extra floor time.
"I was a little worried about adding North Korea to it because of floor time," Corker told reporters. "But it seems we have a gap in the floor."
Corker said that a possible joint sanctions bill addressing North Korea as well as Russia and Iran — which were already joined by the Senate last month — could return to the Senate floor before the chamber leaves for its abbreviated August recess.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) "schedules floor time, but certainly there are important issues that we have to deal with," the Tennessee Republican said. "And hopefully one of those is going to be a [sanctions] bill coming back from the House pretty soon."
Corker added that Senate and House negotiators have already begun talking about potential tweaks to a North Korea sanctions package that the House passed 419-1 in May. "Things are gee-hawing pretty well," he said, employing a southern colloquialism for working together.
Left unaddressed are concerns the White House has pressed for weeks with House Republicans about elements of the sanctions bill that would restrict Trump’s ability to warm relations with Moscow and allow Congress to block the president from easing or ending sanctions against Putin. But GOP insiders have questioned whether Trump can persuade Republican lawmakers to let him go easier on Russia, particularly after the party’s high-profile stumble on health care.
On the House side, Democratic negotiators say they’re waiting for a signal from the Senate about whether it’s feasible to add the North Korea sanctions to the larger package. But House Democrats also insist they haven’t given up in pushing for a change to the procedural language that prevents the minority from forcing a vote to punish Trump if he attempts to ease sanctions against the Kremlin.
“I’m sure Mr. Putin would be very pleased that on the House side bringing up that resolution would be severely restricted,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Tuesday.
Hoyer said the Senate — which approved the language change weeks ago with unanimous consent — should also be alarmed by the restriction, because it would "undermine the Senate’s action" by subjecting any upper-chamber action against Trump to the whims of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
But Hoyer would not rule out relenting on Democrats’ insistence that the language be changed, echoing similar comments last week by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“We’ll have to discuss it,” Hoyer said when asked if Democrats would agree to a sanctions package that includes penalties for Pyongyang but continues to limit the minority party’s rights. “I frankly think the Senate shares the concern of the fact that only the speaker could bring a resolution from the table.”
Pelosi suggested on Friday she would drop House Democrats’ insistence on restoring the language if the bill was ready to move otherwise.
“I want to protect the prerogatives of the minority in the House, but weighing the equities, what was more important was passing the Russian-Iran sanctions bill, " Pelosi said. "So we are on board to just proceed.”