WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump is inspiring bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, but not in a way he wants: Republicans and Democrats in Congress are teaming up to try to prevent him from unilaterally lifting sanctions on Russia.
House Republicans and Democrats introduced a bill Wednesday to require congressional approval of any sanctions relief provided to Russia. It’s the same bill, the Russia Sanctions Review Act, that Senate Republicans and Democrats introduced together last week. The measure would give Congress 120 days to approve or reject a presidential effort to lift sanctions on Russia, and the president couldn’t move forward with lifting any sanctions during that period.
The legislation comes in the midst of a scandal involving the president and his team of advisers, and their potential ties to Russian officials who interfered in last year’s U.S. election to try to help Trump win. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned Monday amid reports that he not only talked to a Russian official in December about sanctions, but lied about it. Another report surfaced Tuesday indicating people on Trump’s campaign were in “constant” contact with Russian officials throughout the election.
Congress has been scrambling to make sense of the revelations, with questions arising about how much Trump knew about his team’s communications with Russians, and when. Trump, meanwhile, has said he’s open to easing sanctions on Russia. That’s not okay with many lawmakers, regardless of their party.
“I think the recent revelations of Flynn’s secret conversations with the Russian ambassador on the subject of sanctions makes this legislation all the more important,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, told reporters.
“If there were condoned discussions that Flynn had, or if he was acting as a free agent ― in either scenario, this president should not have the unfettered capability of eliminating Russian sanctions,” Schiff said.
Republican co-sponsors on the bill include Reps. Tom Rooney (Fla.) and Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) in the House, and Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and John McCain (Ariz.) in the Senate. Rooney and Rubio sit on the intelligence committees in their respective chambers.
The bill marks a rare moment of bipartisanship in a Congress largely divided along party lines. It also comes as Republicans, now in control of the legislative and executive branches, are eager to move forward with their agenda. The fact that they’re already teaming up with Democrats to rein in Trump’s actions on Russia, just four weeks into his presidency, shows how much Trump’s problems are affecting his party’s ability to focus on priorities.
The question now is whether the bill to scale back the president’s authority gets committee hearings and floor votes. That’s up to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) has “expressed interest.” Hoyer said he plans to talk to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about becoming a co-sponsor.
Royce told HuffPost later that Russia shouldn’t get any sanctions relief until it abides by the terms of the Ukraine peace process. He didn’t endorse Hoyer’s bill, but suggested he would advance a bill like it if Trump were to lift any sanctions before Russia got in line.
“If sanctions are eased prior to Russia’s full compliance with the Minsk agreements, I will certainly move legislation to keep them in place,” Royce said in a statement.
Asked if Ryan was on board, his spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said: “The speaker said if there were efforts to weaken sanctions he would support measures to protect against that. He hasn’t endorsed any piece of legislation at this point as the sanctions are still in place.”
As for the Senate, McCain said McConnell hasn’t indicated to him if he supports the bill. McCain said he planned to meet with McConnell later in the day.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart echoed Strong’s position. “I don’t know that he’s said anything new recently about it other than that the White House isn’t doing any sanctions relief, so there’s nothing for Congress to approve,” Stewart said.
Of course, if Ryan and McConnell gave a green light to the bill, lawmakers would have to pass it with a veto-proof majority, since Trump would likely veto it. Hoyer, for one, predicted it would have the votes to survive a veto. Asked if he’s reached out to administration officials about his proposal, he laughed.
“The White House is not necessarily focused on this matter at this point in time, I think it’s fair to say,” Hoyer said.
This story has been updated with comments from Royce.
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