Popular legislation that would limit President Trump’s ability to lift financial sanctions on Russia is mired in a partisan dispute in the House, with Democrats charging that a recent change would weaken the bill.
The surprising roadblock emerged in recent days as Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Group of 20 summit in Germany and floated the possibility of joining forces with Russia on a cybersecurity initiative, to objections from both parties.
The pending legislation, which passed the Senate on a 98-to-2 vote last month, is effectively a congressional check on Trump: any time the president wants to make a change to sanctions policy on Russia, lawmakers would have a chance to block him.
It is a privilege Congress has infrequently awarded itself — such as in 2015, when lawmakers insisted on a chance to weigh in on the Iran nuclear deal — as presidents are typically afforded broad discretion to impose and lift financial sanctions as a foreign policy tool.
Trump’s warm approach to Russia — along with investigations into whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin to meddle in the 2016 election — has many lawmakers uneasy about leaving the country’s sanctions policy to the president alone. But House Democrats said they do not trust that House GOP leaders are serious about the effort — and are now worried a recent change to the bill would effectively rob them of their ability to raise objections to Trump’s Russia sanctions moves in the future.
The text of the bill initially passed by the Senate made clear that any resolution filed to block a presidential action on Russian sanctions would receive a House floor vote, meaning the majority party could not bottle it up.
But House Republican leaders raised procedural objections to the bill after it passed the Senate and demanded revisions — including one that effectively removed that guarantee, prompting House Democrats this week to threaten to block the bill from moving forward.
House Democrats say this latest change is another example of Republicans trying to protect Trump — if not now, by keeping the bill from coming to the floor, then later, if Trump potentially attempts to scale back U.S. sanctions against Russia.
But House Democrats’ refusal to back the legislation as it stands is giving Republicans an opportunity to charge that Democrats are the ones blocking the bill over what the GOP dismisses as a technicality.
“House Republicans are prepared to send the Iran-Russia sanctions bill papers back, which will allow the Senate to automatically resend us a fixed bill, but House Democrats are blocking that and demanding their own changes to the bill,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
A spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) cast the current roadblock as the fault of Republicans.
“Republicans could put the bipartisan Senate-passed Russia sanctions bill on the President desk tomorrow, but instead they’re searching high and low for excuses to drag out the process, weaken the bill, and let Russia and the White House off the hook,” spokeswoman Ashley Etienne said. “House Republicans need to end this charade.”
While the current roadblock could be cleared with a procedural vote to send the bill back to the Senate, House Republican leaders are wary of doing so — noting a lack of precedent for such a vote. Holding a vote on the sanctions bill, they fear, could lead to similar roadblocks on other bills in the future.
Meanwhile, the finger-pointing isn’t just happening across the party divide.
The bill came about after intense negotiations between House and Senate leaders where Republicans and Democrats from both sides of the Capitol were supposed to be keeping each other in the loop.
A House Democratic leadership aide speculated Monday that Senate Democrats were either misled or so rushed to approve the fixes to the bill that they never fully apprised their House colleagues of the changes to House procedure.
But a Senate Democratic aide disputed that idea, saying House Democrats, led by Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) during negotiations, were made aware of the coming changes and signed off on them.
Not all House Democrats are convinced this is a fight worth having as they push for a quick vote on the bill, arguing that House Republicans could always use procedural measures to avoid tough votes on Russia sanctions in the future regardless of the language in the bill.
Senators are growing increasingly frustrated with the squabbles in the House over what they view as a dispute over technicalities and not the substance of the package.
“The fix is nothing. And the fix is fixed,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Monday. “The issue is, are they going to act on Russia sanctions, period.”
Ryan has spoken in favor of the Senate sanctions bill but has not specifically pledged to bring it to the House floor intact, deferring instead to the House committees with jurisdiction over the matter. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is close to the president, has also officially deferred to the committees.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) is in favor of holding a floor vote soon.
The bill codifies existing sanctions against Russia, while expanding punitive measures against Moscow over Russia’s activities in Syria and its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The legislation also expands sanctions against Iran for ballistic missile tests and the activities of the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short told reporters Monday that the Trump administration is “fully supportive” of the sanctions levied in the bill but continued to have issues with the restrictions it would place on the executive branch.
“The legislation, we believe, sets an unusual precedent of delegating foreign policy to 535 members of Congress by not including certain national security waivers that have always been consistently part of sanctions bills in the past,” he said.