A White House effort to secure changes to a Russia sanctions bill constraining President Donald Trump appears likely to fall short, in a major rebuff by the GOP-led Congress to the leader of its own party.
Senior Republican lawmakers and aides gave their clearest comments yet Thursday that the bill would ultimately move forward without changes sought by the White House, potentially undermining Trump’s ability to warm relations with Moscow.
The Senate already passed the bill on a 98-2 vote. And while it’s stalled in the House amid partisan finger-pointing, most Republicans are joining Democrats to support adding new sanctions while curbing Trump’s power to roll back the penalties against Russia.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pushed back against the bill for not providing the administration with “flexibility” to deal with Vladimir Putin’s government, but his words don’t appear to be resonating. GOP lawmakers are loath to be seen as watering down efforts to punish Putin for meddling in the 2016 election, even if many brush off the growing controversy over the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Tillerson is “a good friend, and I really love my relationship with him, but that’s not likely to occur,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said Thursday when asked about the White House’s request for changes to the sanctions bill.
Language empowering Congress to block Trump from any attempt to ease or end sanctions “is going to stay in this bill,” Corker told reporters. “And we’ve had very constructive meetings with the House — there’s no attempt whatsoever to move away from” that provision, the Tennessee Republican added.
A senior House GOP aide put it even more succinctly when it comes to the sanctions bill: “The White House will not be getting what it wants.”
The White House has nudged Republicans for weeks to give Trump more leeway to waive new sanctions against Russia, which target entities involved in Putin-sanctioned cyber-attacks as well as elements of Moscow’s military intelligence, defense, shipping, and energy sectors.
Trump’s legislative affairs director, Marc Short, has blasted the sanctions bill for “delegating foreign policy to 535 members of Congress.”
But Trump advisers’ sales pitch on sanctions seems to be falling flat with the congressional GOP. The outstanding issues that are holding up the bill, lawmakers say, stem from House Democrats’ insistence that their caucus, not just Republicans, get power to force a vote blocking Trump from easing sanctions along with industry concerns about the legislation’s impact on overseas dealmaking.
House leaders in both parties are working on a deal to send the bill back to the Senate before the upper chamber leaves for the August recess. That sets up what could be the first potential veto of Trump’s presidency, given that his aides have yet to say whether he would sign the legislation without more relaxed authority to waive sanctions.
Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia disrupted last fall’s election to benefit his candidacy, vowing after his first face-to-face meeting with Putin this month that “it is time to move forward on working constructively with” the longtime U.S. geopolitical opponent.
Most Republicans, however, are not so willing to forgive and forget, and are not backing down from their push to handcuff Trump on Moscow.
“I think there’s a commitment by members on both sides to be sure Russia’s held accountable … for meddling not just in our elections, but for disinformation campaigns around the world,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in an interview.
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign committee, said his party has “put a very firm policy in place” with passage of the sanctions bill, “that we’d continue to push hard on Russia.”
“As long as they continue to violate international law, we are going to continue to use sanctions and every tool at our disposal to push back,” Gardner added. “That’s the firm commitment of the Senate and I believe, soon, the House.”
Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio acknowledged in a brief interview that "it’s possible" White House lobbying may yet win over House Republicans, "but we’ll work against that."
A key Democratic negotiator on the sanctions package agreed that Republicans are not likely to give Trump what he wants. “I’m not sure there’s that much concern for what the White House is saying on the House side,” Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters this week.
But Cardin underscored that Democrats are not fully prepared to sign off on changes to the Senate-passed bill, citing some proposed tweaks that he found “problematic.”
It’s not clear where the lingering hurdles are on changes sought by oil and gas producers, as well as other K Street players, which have warned that the Senate’s sanctions language could imperil their ability to partner with Russian companies. Corker described that as a “legitimate issue.”
In the House, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) are still in talks on resolving a dispute over Democrats’ ability to force an anti-Trump vote to preserve sanctions, as well as a late-breaking bid by the California Republican to add North Korea sanctions to the bill. Hoyer sounded a positive note Thursday on the status of those negotiations, suggesting a deal could emerge within a “day or two.”
“We want to make sure that we move a bill, as you do, as quickly as possible and get agreement with the Senate and move that bill to the president’s desk,” Hoyer said during a conversation on the floor with McCarthy.
Still, some Democrats remain wary that the delay in the sanctions bill risks giving the White House more time to twist House Republican arms.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who has crafted a separate North Korea sanctions bill with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), said their plan would "apply a lot more economic pressure on" Pyongyang than the House bill McCarthy is pushing.
"I think the main thing is the need to do Russia sanctions now," Van Hollen added. "Some people suspect [Republicans] are using North Korea as the excuse to slow that down, so we’ll see."
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.