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Republican lawmakers move to restrain President-elect Trump on Russia

As Trump pursues warmer relations with Russia, members of Congress are planning early moves to hold the line on relations with Moscow — and the administration in check. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As President-elect Trump talks normalization of relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Republicans in Congress are moving to stake out a tough stance against Russia.

The effort started with the House passing a bill to sanction anyone who supports the Syrian government in the ongoing civil war there. And a range of lawmakers — including Trump allies and other Republicans — are preparing other possible measures, arguing that the United States should be taking a harder line against a country and a leader they view as a dangerous threat.

“[Trump] wants to reset with Russia. Maybe he can do it, but here’s my view about Russia: They’re a bad actor in the world, they need to be reined in,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Tuesday. He added that it would be up to Congress to let Russia “know the rules of the road pretty early,” even under a friendlier Trump administration.

“I think [Russia] should pay a price heavier than they’re paying now for what they’re doing in Syria and in Eastern Europe,” Graham added. “I will consult with my colleagues what there is appetite for.”

Graham isn’t the only Trump critic who came out swinging on Tuesday on Russian involvement in global affairs. His close friend and colleague, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that “the price of another ‘reset’ [with Russia] would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people. That is an unacceptable price for a great nation.”

But with Trump on his way into the White House, lawmakers worry that statements won’t be enough to prevent the United States from adopting a softer stance on Moscow. So they are preparing a battery of legislative measures to hold the line against Russia, regardless of what the president-elect tries to do.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — who has been mentioned as a secretary of state candidate in a Trump administration — said “there’s going to be much more opportunity for bipartisan passage” of bills pertaining to Russia. Lawmakers “plan to be aggressive” as they move toward the new year, he said.

Corker and other Republicans argued that some of the concerns regarding Trump’s foreign policy statements during the campaign — including his commitment to NATO — were overwrought.

“I think there’s been an evolution on the focus of NATO,” Corker said, citing President Obama’s recent comments that he believes Trump will keep the United States’ commitment to NATO.

But Republicans are still driving bills through Congress that take direct aim at Russia.

On Tuesday, the House passed a bill imposing mandatory sanctions on anyone who financially, economically or technologically supports Syria’s government in the civil war there — a category that chiefly includes Russia and Iran. Trump’s supporters didn’t stand in the way, and the measure was passed unanimously.

“Regardless of perspectives on Syria, there’s some unanimity of opinion in sending a message on this kind of conduct,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said before the vote.

House passes two sanctions bills

The legislation isn’t likely to pass the Senate before the end of the year. But senators are already planning their next steps in the new Congress against Russia — including sanctions and potentially then some.

Royce suggested that Trump’s campaign rhetoric on NATO was simply a “very successful negotiating tactic” that he expected would help get NATO and other allies “to pay their share of the burden” of defense.

Graham promised “a package that would help our Eastern European allies better deal with the threats they face from Russia,” a package including broad defense aid “to make it harder for Russia to advance beyond where they are today.”

Graham also said he hoped to hold “a series of hearings about Russia’s misadventures throughout the world,” focusing on propaganda in the Baltic states, aggressive behavior in Georgia and Ukraine, and Moscow’s track record of cyberattacks on U.S. allies and, recently, on the United States itself — through hacks on the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations and officials.

Republican foreign policy leaders had expressed interest in holding hearings on Russian meddling in the U.S. elections before the pre-election recess, but those plans fell apart — under pressure, a report from the Daily Beast alleged, from GOP leaders who didn’t want to give Democrats a chance to investigate connections between Moscow and the Trump campaign right before the election.

“We cannot sit on the sidelines as a party and let allegations against a foreign government interfering in our election process go unanswered because it may have been beneficial to our goals for the moment,” Graham said Tuesday.

In the House, Royce also said he would be interested in investigating Russia’s connection to the hacking incidents.

“I would hope that all federal agencies are investigating,” Royce said. “If we can get evidence, it’s very worthwhile to pursue any information we have.”

If Republicans put forward bills to restrain Russia over hacking and on other fronts, they will likely have support from Democrats.

“Whether it’s an attack on us by MiGs or by mouse, frankly it requires a response,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

Cardin wants Obama to take more action to censure or sanction Russia before departing office. But he is also planning his own “comprehensive” legislation to address Russia, which he said would encompass “sanctions, plus more than that.”

“I don’t look at Russia as a partner, I look at it as a bully, and a country that has interfered with so many other countries,” he added, citing Russia’s conduct in Ukraine and recent bombings in Syria that are “preventing us from resolving a civil war, dealing with humanitarian needs, and concentrating on ISIS.”

Cardin expects Republicans will get on board with his plans.

“I do believe there is bipartisan support in Congress for policies that are not consistent at all with what [Trump] says,” Cardin said. “I think my Republican colleagues agree with me, not with President-elect Trump…. We have a lot of active members on both sides of the aisle that are prepared to work together on Russia to get the right bill enacted.”