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New sanctions on Russia and Iran hit House roadblock

By Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian

June 20, 2017 at 6:22 PM

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaks during a hearing in Washington. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

A bipartisan bill extending financial sanctions on Russia and Iran and making it more difficult for President Trump to ease Russian sanctions has encountered a major procedural snag, threatening its quick passage into law and prompting Democrats to accuse House Republicans of protecting Trump.

The sanctions bill, known as the Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act, passed the Senate last week on a 98-to-2 vote. But this week, House staff flagged the bill for violating the constitutional provision that only the House can originate bills raising revenue for the government — creating what is known on Capitol Hill as a "blue slip" violation.

Fixing the issue might not be a simple matter, with unanimous consent required to expedite any Senate legislation and Republicans preparing to bring complex health-care legislation to the Senate floor.

Related: [Senate overwhelmingly passes new Russia and Iran sanctions]

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters Tuesday that his staff had been working "hand in glove" with Senate aides to prevent just this sort of issue. But he said the final bill included "language we had not seen" that was ultimately flagged by the House parliamentarian as a constitutional violation.

"At the end of the day, this isn't a policy issue; this isn't a partisan issue," Brady said. "This is a constitutional issue that we'll address in a positive way."

But the holdup comes amid a push by the Trump administration to delay or water down the sanctions bill, which was passed in response to Russia's continued involvement in the wars in Ukraine and Syria and for its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused House Republicans Tuesday of concocting a "procedural excuse to hide what they're really doing: covering for a president who has been far too soft on Russia."

"The Senate passed this bill on a strong bipartisan vote of 98-2, sending a powerful message to President Trump that he should not lift sanctions on Russia, and to President Putin that interfering with our elections will not be taken lightly," Schumer said. "The House Republicans need to pass this bill as quickly as possible."

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has supported stronger sanctions on both Russia and Iran but has not specifically committed to bringing the Senate bill to the House floor.

"We will determine the next course of action after speaking with our Senate colleagues," said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.

While the bill was roundly popular in the Senate, the Trump administration warned senators last week not to pass any legislation that might tie the executive branch's hands with regard to Russia.

"We would ask for the flexibility to turn the heat up when we need to, but also to ensure that we have the ability to maintain a constructive dialogue," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, a day before the Senate passed the bill stepping up sanctions and restraining the president from being able to roll back existing sanctions.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the bill's sponsor and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tuesday he had not been informed of the procedural problem in the House.

"You're sharing something with me I'm not aware of," he said. "We felt like we had adequately dealt with the blue-slip issue when we did it. I look forward to seeing what the complaint might be."

Micah Johnson, a spokesman for Corker, said his office worked directly with the House Ways and Means Committee while the bill was under consideration in the Senate "to ensure it would clear all procedural hurdles in the House."

"We appreciate their desire to fully review the legislation before taking action and stand ready to work with them to address any issues that need to be resolved," Johnson said.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also joined the objections, calling the roadblock "nothing but a delay tactic" and said "anything short of an up-or-down vote on this tough sanctions package is an attempt to let Russia off the hook."

The Treasury Department said Tuesday that it had extended existing sanctions to new individuals and entities involved in the ongoing territorial conflict between Russia and Ukraine, including three Russian government officials. The announcement came on the same day that Trump met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the White House.

But senators fear that the White House sees the House as a bottleneck where it can block the broader sanctions bill. Leaders there could refer the matter of sanctions to the four House committees that have jurisdiction over the bill. If that happens, many supporters of the stepped-up sanctions said they fear that the measure will, at best, be inordinately delayed, and at worst, be decimated as lawmakers attempt to put their own mark on the bill.

The Russia sanctions are complicated by the fact that they were passed as part of a larger bill imposing new sanctions against Iran over their ballistic missile tests and the activities of the country's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The compromise legislation, which came together after months of negotiations, was able to command the support of 98 senators last week — but many in the House would like to take more extensive punitive measures.

If the House committees each get an independent shot at the bill, "it'll be a big mess," said one senior Senate Democratic aide. It will also probably take longer than many lawmakers think they have to hold the president in check.

Brady said that he would not insist his committee formally review the bill if the revenue provision is modified, calling the policy content "very strong." But he declined to say Tuesday whether he expected the bill to reach the House floor before Congress breaks for its extended summer recess next month.

"I think the Senate can move pretty quickly to correct that provision and send it back to us," he said. "That would be my preference."

According to a person familiar with the negotiations, the only provision that Ways & Means had not been made privy to before the Senate passed the bill was a section specifying a 30-day review period for Congress to scrutinize any presidential requests to waive sanctions.

The Trump administration has indicated that it is exploring giving Russia control over two compounds the Obama administration shuttered to Moscow late last year over suspicion they were used in intelligence-gathering. The Obama administration also expelled 35 Russian operatives from the country.

The Senate-passed bill expressly prevents the administration from turning those facilities back over to Moscow. But a senior State Department official is heading to Russia this week for talk about "irritants" between the United States and Russia, according to news reports.

Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.


Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.

Karoun Demirjian covers defense and foreign policy and was previously a correspondent based in the Post's bureau in Moscow, Russia.

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