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White House will step up lobbying against Russia sanctions bill now stalled in Congress

Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said this week that he was prepared to move a bill on sanctions for Russian and Iran. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The Trump administration is planning to step up its lobbying against parts of a bipartisan Senate bill slapping new sanctions on Russian and Iran, a senior official said — an effort that comes as Congress works to clear up an unexpected roadblock to the measure that could give the White House more time to air its concerns to sympathetic House Republicans.

The White House opposes provisions that could be seen as preempting the president’s powers, the official said. Of particular concern is a congressional review process that would allow the House and Senate to block the president from lifting sanctions.

The House blocked progress on the Senate-passed Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act earlier this week, arguing that it flouted the constitutional provision requiring revenue-raising bills to originate in the House. That prompted accusations from Democrats that the House Republican leaders were trying to stall the bill at Trump’s request.

New sanctions on Russia and Iran hit House roadblock

While the procedural snag could be cleared as soon as next week, it remains unclear when the House will take final action.

The Trump administration has publicly warned against impeding presidential prerogatives to relieve sanctions. “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 told the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.

The White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, said the administration’s concern is one of separation of powers and not policy toward Russia. The official said the White House expects to see previous officials from Democratic administrations voicing the same concern as the debate plays out in the House.

For Trump, however, the issue is politically fraught because his relationship with Russia and whether Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election have become central themes of his presidency and is the subject of investigations by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and congressional committees. The sanctions bill was passed by the Senate in response to Russia’s continued involvement in the wars in Ukraine and Syria and for its alleged meddling in the election.

The president continues to express anger and annoyance at the focus on Russia’s role in the election even as his public comments on the matter, such as calling it “all big Dem HOAX!” in a series of tweets earlier this week, have kept the issue in the news.

White House aides this week said the president isn’t denying Russia tried to meddle in the election.

“I think he’s made it clear and been consistent that while everyone agrees the result of the election wasn’t influenced, he think that it probably was Russia,” deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday.

House aides said Thursday a solution was being crafted in coordination with the Senate to address the constitutional issue, which dealt with possible revenue from fines that could be levied under the bill.

“Absent Senate action to return the bill and cure the Origination Clause issue, the House will act to preserve its Constitutional rights and ‘blue slip’ the Senate-passed bill,” a Ways and Means Committee aide said, using Capitol Hill lingo for the constitutional objection.

Senate leaders have not said whether they will accept the House’s proposed fix, and House leaders have not committed to schedule the bill for a floor vote. But if senators sign off on the proposed changes — which one House GOP aide described as “technical, not substantive” — the bill could be on the floor in July. While the four House committees with jurisdiction over sanctions have not committed to whether they will formally review the legislation a course of action, at least some, including the Foreign Affairs Committee, are expected to waive their right to hold hearings to expedite its passage.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) told reporters this week that he was prepared to move the bill. “One way or the other, we have to do it very quickly,” he said Wednesday, according to the Hill.

If the House takes up the measure, it could set up a veto fight with the White House that Congress is likely to win. A veto-proof majority of senators already voted in favor of the measure. But a showdown between Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress over Russia sanctions would be politically problematic for the party.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Thursday that he personally supports the new sanctions and that Royce is “very eager to move this bill.”

“So we want to get this bill cleaned up. We need Foreign Affairs to do their scrub of this legislation, which is what we do every time a bill comes over from the Senate,” he said. “But Chairman Royce has indicated he wants to get moving on this quickly, and we want to honor that.”

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.