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Congress sends Russia sanctions bill to Trump’s desk, but it’s unclear whether he will veto it

The Trump administration has considered handing back to Russia control of two U.S. compounds the Obama administration seized at the end of last year, accusing Moscow of using them for intelligence purposes. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to pass a bill increasing sanctions against Russia, Iran and North Korea, establishing veto-proof majorities for the measure that also allows Congress to block President Trump from easing sanctions against Moscow.

The 98-to-2 vote sets up the president with a pivotal choice: veto the bill knowing that lawmakers are prepared to override, as his communications chief Anthony Scaramucci suggested this morning on CNN that he might, or sign the legislation that binds his hands when it comes to altering sanctions policy against Moscow, a provision his administration lobbied hard against.

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) were the only senators to vote against the bill. The two were also the only votes against an earlier version of the legislation that the Senate passed last month, also by a vote of 98 to 2, that focused on just Russia and Iran.

White House incoming press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to say Thursday whether the president would veto the bill.

“We’re going to wait and see what that final legislation looks like and make a decision at that point,” she said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he thinks Congress will override Trump's potential veto of the Russian sanctions bill. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

But in an interview on CNN earlier in the day, Scaramucci said that Trump “may veto the sanctions” to “negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians.”

It is unlikely that promise will be persuasive to members of Congress, who banded together in near-unanimous numbers to endorse unprecedented oversight powers over the president’s sanctions authority, a sign of many lawmakers’ concerns that Trump is fostering a too-warm relationship with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and may scale back punitive measures against Moscow.

Senate, House leaders strike a deal on sanctions

Under the bill, the president is required to notify Congress before making any alterations to Russia sanctions policy, and lawmakers then have 30 days in which they can block the president from implementing those changes. The procedure, known as “congressional review,” is the most sweeping authority Congress has given itself to check the president on sanctions policy in decades.

Such matters have traditionally been left to the executive branch once Congress authorizes the sanctions at the administration’s disposal. Even in the case of mandatory sanctions, Congress usually steers clear of the president on matters of national security.

But lawmakers are worried by hints that the Trump administration might make concessions to Russia, specifically sanctions that the Kremlin has sought to have lifted. The administration has considered handing back to Russia control of two U.S. compounds the Obama administration seized at the end of last year, accusing Moscow of using them for intelligence purposes. And Trump and his surrogates have spoken to Putin and other Russian operatives about restoring the ability of U.S. citizens to adopt children from Russia — which the Kremlin won’t allow until the United States repeals the Magnitsky Act and Global Magnitsky Act sanctioning human-rights violators.

The Senate on July 27 passed a bill increasing sanctions on Russia, North Korea and Iran. The White House hasn’t said whether President Trump will veto it. (Video: U.S. Senate)

U.S. lawmakers’ attempt to handcuff Trump on Russia could backfire, Europe says

House and Senate leaders were unmoved by the Trump administration’s repeated efforts to remove Congress’s 30-day review power from the legislation. In fact, the final dispute among congressional leaders had to do with senators wanting to apply a similar congressional review provision to the North Korea sanctions portion of the bill. In the deal they struck Wednesday night, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he secured a promise from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that the House would take up such enhancements in the near future in exchange for the Senate passing the House-approved sanctions bill this week.

This week, the House passed the same legislation by a vote of 419 to 3.

Beyond the congressional review provision, the bill codifies existing sanctions and steps up sanctions against Moscow over Russia’s involvement in the wars in Ukraine and Syria, as well as allegations that it interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections. The bill also stiffens punitive measures against Iran and North Korea in an attempt to curtail those countries’ ballistic missile tests and other aggressive activities.

Philip Rucker and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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