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Congress to ease Russia sanctions amid clamor for tougher measures

First lady Melania Trump stands by as President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin greet each other at their meeting at the presidential palace in Helsinki on July 16.
First lady Melania Trump stands by as President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin greet each other at their meeting at the presidential palace in Helsinki on July 16. (Alexey Nikolsky/Pool/Sputnik/Kremlin/Epa-Efe/Shutterstock)

Bowing to pressure from the Trump administration, lawmakers unveiled a sweeping defense policy bill Tuesday that would give the president greater power to forgo certain Russia-related penalties.

The move to scale back sanctions stands in sharp contrast to mounting bipartisan fervor in the Senate to get tougher on Russia after a summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin that was roundly decried as an embarrassment and a missed opportunity to deal harshly with the Kremlin over election interference.

Lawmakers have unleashed a flurry of bills, resolutions and other initiatives to try to force Trump to step up penalties against Russia. There is also pressure to take steps before Putin can make good on an invitation from Trump to visit the United States this fall — though at this juncture, the State Department is unaware of any formal invitation, and Russian authorities say they are making no formal preparations for a second summit.

In negotiations on the annual defense authorization bill, House and Senate lawmakers agreed to give the president the power to waive sanctions, without first checking with Congress, against certain entities that still do business with Russia. The move came in response to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s request for more latitude to bring countries, such as India, that historically have been dependent on Russian defensive materials in closer alliance with the United States.

Leading Republicans hailed the move as “necessary . . . to wean them off Russia and build them onto U.S.-made products,” in the words of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who co-authored the original sanctions legislation.

But Democrats decried the action as the start of “a slippery slope,” according to Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), ranking Democrat on the same committee. “It undermines the essence of what we were trying to do . . . and I’m concerned it may not only create a waiver but it may also waive Congress’s right to bring a vote on any arms sale to those countries.”

The House could vote as early as this week on the defense legislation.

Trump’s Putin fallout: Inside the White House’s tumultuous week of walk-backs

On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) stated firmly that Putin would not be invited to address Congress if he came to the United States, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stressed that Putin “will not be welcome up here at the Capitol.” Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and Banking committees also announced that they would soon hold hearings to address, among other matters, the implementation of sanctions against Russia.

But rank-and-file lawmakers are growing impatient for action, as demonstrated by several bipartisan pairs of senators who have raised and endorsed bills and resolutions demanding an increase in punitive measures against Russian actors caught undermining the United States. On Tuesday, Sens. Menendez and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) teased forthcoming legislation that would immediately step up sanctions on Russian oligarchs and the country’s energy, financial and cyber sectors; tighten reporting requirements to Congress about existing sanctions implementation; and require Senate approval for any bid to withdraw from NATO. Also Tuesday. Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin demanding that the department impose sanctions on the Russians cited in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s latest indictment.

Those moves come on the heels of repeated efforts by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) to secure a vote in the Senate expressing lawmakers’ conviction that Trump should fully enforce existing sanctions against Russia. In recent days, a wave of Republican and Democratic senators has also signed on to a bill from Sens. Van Hollen and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would slap new sectoral sanctions on Russia if the director of national intelligence concluded that the Kremlin had tried to interfere in another election, within 10 days of his determination.

In addition to bipartisan efforts, individual senators have also written resolutions to push back against Trump’s erratic Russia diplomacy, such as a proposal from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) opposing any more one-on-one meetings between Trump and Putin without a second U.S. official present. After Russia’s description of “agreements” reached in Helsinki, the administration has been repeatedly pressed to report what happened during Trump’s two-hour-plus meeting alone with Putin.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday in California, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Trump’s summit with Putin and said they had agreed “to put together a business council” to “start track-two processes,” apparently referring to agreements announced by both sides to establish working groups of nongovernmental foreign policy experts. Pompeo is expected to be asked about those agreements and other details of the summit during a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

But the swirl of initiatives to press the president is unlikely to sway Republican leaders, who have been noncommittal about where sanctions and other measures might find room in a tight congressional calendar — the House leaves for a month-long recess at the end of the week — and are warning against Congress binding itself to anything with the weight of law too hastily.

“The Helsinki news conference was a sad day for our country, and everyone knows it,” Corker said Tuesday. But he warned against making policy “with our hair on fire,” adding that “moving a bill three days after a deplorable news conference is not an intelligent thing to do.”

Democratic leaders have jeered Republicans for refusing to speed any of the measures, even the nonbinding resolutions, to the floor for the Senate’s consideration.

“Against someone like Putin you need tough, strong action,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “We haven’t seen our Republican colleagues do any of that.”

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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