The Senate will turn to North Korea sanctions later this month — but lawmakers are unlikely to consider the same bill the House passed last week with huge bipartisan support.
Instead, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is aiming to take up a bill that would combine legislation from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), both of whom drafted measures last year to step up sanctions against North Korea.
While the House and Senate bills contain generally the same sanctions options, there are differences between them — key among them that a compromise Senate measure is likely to leave more decision-making authority in the president’s hands and carve out more humanitarian assistance protections than the House bill.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in an interview while there was “nothing fundamentally wrong with the House bill,” he would like to tackle human rights in North Korea more comprehensively.
The House bill would only serve as a backup if the Senate can’t work out one outstanding issue between the its two measures, Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday.
“I’m 99 percent sure it will be a Senate bill,” Corker said, adding his committee will likely consider the measures during a Jan. 28 markup.
Working through a separate bill may slow down the pace with which Congress responds to the latest nuclear provocation from Pyongyang. During the last Congress, the Senate dropped the ball on a similar North Korea sanctions bill that the House passed by voice vote.
But Senate leaders stressed they have every intention of moving North Korea legislation quickly this month.
If the negotiations process falls apart, Corker said, “we still have the House-based text we could take up and certainly pass with a strong bipartisan majority.”
Earlier this month, the North Korean government claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb – a claim that most experts said was exaggerated, but nonetheless alarming, as it marked the fourth time North Korea has conducted a nuclear test in recent years. The House passed a bill just a week later to stiffen sanctions against the regime and those who help it by a vote of 418 to 2, with no Democrats opposing the measure.
But instead of running with the House’s momentum, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opted for a slower process of sorting through its own proposals.
“I appreciate that the House moved very fast,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said last week. “I think we need to get it right.”
Menendez and Gardner both sounded positive notes on Wednesday that the discrepancies between their bills would be resolved.
“The goal is a bipartisan sanctions bill out of the committee, and then onto the floor,” Gardner said.
But several key differences remain.
The difference between the Senate bills concerns which sanctions the president would be required to impose and which he would use at his discretion.
Menendez’s bill puts a great deal more decision-making power in the hands of the president. The Gardner and House bills require the president to sanction individuals participating in arms trading, selling of luxury goods, cash smuggling, money laundering, censorship, and human rights abuses. Menendez’s bill simply authorizes the president to make the call.
Menendez said last week the compromise bill should feature “a mix of mandatory and discretionary sanctions” and added on Wednesday that he expected the final list would be a combination of the two.
The bills also differ in what kinds of cybersecurity threats would be sanctioned, and emphasis put on North Korea’s minerals industry — a unique feature of Gardner’s bill.
The measures also approach human rights and humanitarian activities differently, with Menendez’s bill going the furthest to ensure that humanitarian aid and assistance receives special protection from enhanced sanctions, which is a key concern for some Senate Democrats.