House and Senate Republicans clashed Wednesday over a bipartisan package of sanctions targeting Russia, Iran, and North Korea as the Senate GOP threw up a new hurdle that could significantly delay the bill’s arrival on President Donald Trump’s desk.
Less than 24 hours after the sanctions deal passed the House 419-3, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said his chamber would likely cut out its North Korea provisions — which were added to the mix in the last lap of talks on the legislation at the behest of House GOP leaders — and send it back across the Capitol. House Republican leaders responded to Corker’s gambit by urging the Senate to act quickly on the bill and warning that any changes would postpone Trump’s looming decision on a veto until September.
Corker, a leading author of the initial package of penalties against Russia and Iran, had stayed conspicuously silent as senior House and Senate negotiators in both parties unveiled a deal Saturday that allows Congress to block Trump from easing or ending any sanctions against Moscow.
His critical comments Wednesday risk reopening fellow Republicans to Democratic charges that they are delaying the bill’s final passage at the behest of a president who has long dismissed U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia meddled in the presidential election.
The House GOP’s North Korea addition is "something we have never sat down and worked through the language on like we did with the other pieces" of the sanctions package, Corker said at an event hosted by the Washington Post. "So we have people in our body that want to weigh in on those issues."
"What likely will happen is we will strip out the North Korea piece and send it back to them so that the two pieces that we’ve negotiated together will remain intact," Corker added, warning that the situation could change yet again.
The office of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who first pressed to add North Korea to the bill, responded by urging the Senate to "act expeditiously" on the bill that cleared the lower chamber Tuesday.
“There has long been agreement that North Korea sanctions are due — especially given new reports that North Korea will be able to reliably deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental United States by the end of next year," McCarthy spokesman Matt Sparks said by email.
Excising the North Korea language and forcing the House to vote again on only the Russia and Iran portions of the bill, Sparks said, "would ensure the bill does not become law" before lawmakers leave Washington for their annual August recess.
The White House has avoided taking any firm position on the sanctions bill, which would allow Congress to block Trump from easing or ending penalties against Vladimir Putin’s government. After initially saying they would press House Republicans to give Trump more leeway to warm relations with Putin, Trump aides appeared to concede when Saturday’s deal included none of the major changes they had sought by signaling they would accept the technical tweaks that bipartisan negotiators did agree to.
But after saying Sunday that Trump would accept the deal, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated Tuesday that Trump had not yet decided whether to sign the bill.
The further delay in congressional consideration of the sanctions allows the White House to further forestall that decision on whether to veto the legislation, knowing that Trump would almost surely be overridden by Congress.
House Democrats had raised concerns about Corker’s resistance to the addition of North Korea sanctions before Republican leaders teed up an overwhelming vote on Tuesday and expressed concern Monday that the GOP had pressed ahead with a vote regardless.
“I don’t know who decided that, because Leaders McCarthy’s office posted a bill online, everyone was on the same page," one House Democratic aide said. "Because obviously they weren’t.”
In the Senate, Democrats are still evaluating how to respond to Corker’s resistance. They are unlikely to agree to quickly strip out the North Korea provisions from the bill if that move only further traps the popular sanctions bill in legislative limbo, a Democratic aide said Wednesday.
Negassi Tesfamichael contributed to this report.