House Republican leaders want to attach a bill increasing sanctions on North Korea to legislation to restrain the president and stiffen punitive measures against Russia and Iran, a last-minute wrinkle that could further delay the bill’s progress through Congress.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on the House floor Friday that he believes the North Korea sanctions bill, which the House passed in May on a 419 to 1 vote, “should be added” to the legislation increasing sanctions against Russia and Iran.
“It would be a very strong statement for all of America to get that sanction bill completed and done, and to the president’s desk,” McCarthy said.
But Democrats are furious at the change, which they see as a last-minute effort by one of the president’s closest allies in Congress to derail the Russia-Iran sanctions bill just as congressional leaders had agreed on a way to resolve their differences.
“Democrats are absolutely not in agreement with adding North Korea sanctions,” said one House Democratic aide. “This is another delay tactic. This is moving the goal posts again.”
The Russia and Iran sanctions bill, which the Senate passed last month on a vote of 98 to 2, stalled as lawmakers argued over technical changes House Republicans leaders insisted were necessary to get the measure through their chamber. At issue was an alleged “blue slip” violation — arising from the fact that bills affecting revenue must originate in the House — and a disagreement over how lawmakers would be able to bring up measures to block the president should he ever try to scale back sanctions against Russia.
The bill codified existing sanctions against Russia, while stepping up punitive measures over its interference in Syria, Ukraine and the 2016 U.S. election; it also increases sanctions against Iran for recent ballistic missile tests. But critically, the bill would give Congress a 30-day window to check the president before he could make any changes to existing sanctions policy against Russia, including scaling back the punitive measure the United States has against Moscow.
The Trump administration has vocally objected to this provision, though they say they are otherwise comfortable with the increased sanctions under the bill. But lawmakers have been wary of the president’s warm approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s reticence to endorse the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was behind a series of hacks and disinformation campaigns to swing the outcome of the 2016 election in Trump’s favor. Many lawmakers are concerned that absent a congressional check on his authority, the president might try to scale back sanctions against Russia — particularly by returning control to Moscow of two compounds that the Obama administration wrested from Russia in late 2016 as punishment for alleged meddling in the 2016 campaign.
Earlier this week, Democrats objected that House Republicans were trying to prevent the minority from ever bringing up a resolution under the bill to block President Trump from making changes to sanctions policy, absent Republican approval. But as of Friday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats were ready to let their complaint go.
“I don’t like that, I want to protect the prerogatives of the minorities in the House, but weighing the equities, what was more important was passing the Russia-Iran sanctions bill,” she said. “So we are on board to just proceed.”
House Democrats, who also voted overwhelmingly for the North Korea sanctions package this spring, could decide to attach the measure to the Russia-Iran bill. But doing so likely creates a serious hurdle for the bill in the Senate, where lawmakers have not examined the House’s North Korea sanctions bill and will probably want to consider a bipartisan sanctions measure of their own, unveiled by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) this week.
The senators’ measure would give Congress review power over any changes the president might try to make to North Korea sanctions policy that is almost identical to the review power over Russia sanctions written into the Russia-Iran bill. Congressional review is not a part of the House’s North Korea bill.
On Thursday, the chairs of the Senate Banking and Foreign Relations committees said they were still reviewing the senators’ North Korea bill, but were generally supportive of including congressional review power in such measures.
Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) also said Thursday that as he understood it, it was “a possibility” that House leaders might try to attach North Korea sanctions to the Russia-Iran package, but that the chances were slim — “probably a four-percenter,” as he put it.
On Friday, Corker said that he “would be more than glad to take a close look” at tying North Korea sanctions to the Russia-Iran bill “if this is the path they choose” in the House.
“There is no question that we need to apply more pressure to North Korea,” he said.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), reacting to McCarthy’s proposal Friday, said: “We want to get this done as soon as possible, and I’m urging the majority to move quickly. I’d be pleased if we could move next week.”
House leaders have been frustrated that the Senate has not taken steps in the past two months to take up the House’s North Korea sanctions package.
Senators are not likely, however, to agree to approve comprehensive North Korea sanctions legislation without conducting some vetting first. And that could leave Congress at least at an impasse that, if it extends to the August recess, would mean that it could be months before any sanctions measures against Russia or North Korea proceed.