Congress is poised to give itself new powers over the administration’s ability to roll back sanctions aimed at Russia, the latest evidence of lawmakers’ continuing distrust of President Donald Trump’s handling of the United States’ relationship with Moscow.
The House and Senate are expected to pass a bill as soon as this week that includes language giving Congress 30 days to review and vote to prevent any move by the president to ease sanctions against Russia.
The move comes despite considerable pressure from the administration to strip this provision from the bill, with the White House arguing that it would give the president less flexibility than his predecessors to determine when and where sanctions should be applied.
Lawmakers in both parties rejected this argument and said they want to include similar restraints in future legislation, including a proposal aimed at North Korea, with Democrats citing Trump as a motivating factor and Republicans arguing that it should become the new practice regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.
“We want to continue on, no matter who’s president,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in an interview. “I think congressional review should be a part of every sanction that we put in place.”
On Tuesday, the House will vote on a bill that would impose new financial sanctions on Russia and Iran, which are meant to punish Moscow for its alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election and its military activities in Syria and Ukraine, and Tehran for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The bill doesn’t give Congress the same review powers over penalties directed at Iran as it does Russia, and the House plans to add to the bill a package of sanctions against North Korea that also lacks this oversight language.
But lawmakers said the congressional review process is expected to be part of sanctions bills going forward, saying it’s prudent to give Congress this check on the president at a time when rogue states are taking ever more audacious steps to develop nuclear weapons, seize territory and engage in cybercrime.
Many also acknowledge it is an issue given more urgency by Trump’s recent attempts to cozy up to world leaders with questionable human rights records and his fluid foreign policy stances.
“What we’ve seen to date is not a consistent policy,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who has teamed up with Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., on a North Korea sanctions bill that includes a congressional review provision. “We’ve seen a series of tweets, but nothing that is consistent and clear, and that’s why this legislation’s important.”
In recent years, sanctions have become a favored means of pressuring foreign nations to cease objectionable activities, including North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear warheads.
Congress and recent administrations have clashed over the extent to which sanctions ought to be applied against adversary nations and individuals, with lawmakers urging harsher punitive actions and administrations angling for more latitude to leave diplomatic options open.
But even amid these tensions, lawmakers traditionally have offered the president the ability to waive sanctions when he determines it is in the national security interest of the United States.
That appears to be changing in the Trump era.
The president’s affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin has been of particular concern for lawmakers, who worry that the president may try to dismantle sanctions put in place by President Barack Obama late last year, such as handing back Russian compounds in Maryland and New York, after his administration accused Moscow of trying to influence the presidential election.
Leaders in both chambers have endorsed an approach to Russia sanctions that codifies and expands existing punitive measures, while giving Congress 30 days to review any changes the president wants to make to the policy.
The White House insisted it has no problem with increasing mandatory sanctions against Russia but does not want Congress to tie its hands when it comes to limiting the president’s authority to roll them back.
It would be politically difficult for the president to veto the legislation, and the White House said Trump has yet to make up his mind about the bill.
“As I said, he’s looking over where it stands exactly at this point,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of Trump. “I think the important part of this is that the president very much supports sanctions on those countries and wants to make sure that those remain but at the same time wants to make sure that we get good deals. Those two things are both very important for the president.”
Senate leaders are ready to make this congressional review provision part of future sanctions bills, but House Republican leaders have yet to commit to the idea beyond the Russia legislation.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., declined to outline his position after several days of requests, while others in House leadership claimed to be unfamiliar with the provision and legal nuances it involves.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce, R-Calif., said he would prefer to consider the issue on a case-by-case basis.
Several rank-and-file House GOP members, however, said they want a congressional review considered for future sanctions bills.
“As we move forward in this dangerous world, I think you’re going to see us use these kinds of vehicles, I believe probably in increased fashion,” said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., a senior deputy party whip.
“I understand where they’re coming from, but I feel like oversight is good,” Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said of the leadership’s reservations about allowing Congress to block presidential actions on sanctions. “And I’m a Trump supporter,” he added.
Republicans argue that the push to give Congress a greater say on when sanctions can be eased is not directly related to Trump, but part of a longer-term trend that began when lawmakers passed bipartisan legislation allowing them to vote on whether the Iran nuclear deal negotiated toward the end of the Obama administration could go into effect. Many Republicans said they wished that Congress had insisted on similar review power when they passed stiffened nuclear sanctions against Tehran in 2010, surmising that they may have been able to prevent Obama from concluding the Iran nuclear deal if they had.
Although the Senate has shown support for giving lawmakers the ability to review any rollback of sanctions against North Korea, it’s unclear whether that will be included in the latest legislative package moving through Congress.
The House plans to include its Pyongyang sanctions bill in the Russia and Iran legislation being voted on Tuesday, but it does not include the review language.
Still, experts say that cohesion around the Russia legislation suggests Congress is ready to assert itself more fully in the realm of sanctions policy going forward.
“We’re seeing a Congress that’s much more interested in case-by-case involvement in these fields, where historically Congress’ approach was to just delegate what authority it might have to the executive,” said Stephen Vladeck, a constitutional and national security law expert at the University of Texas School of Law. “The reality is that Congress is slowly and begrudgingly accepting something that many of us have been arguing for years, which is that they have a lot more of a stick to wield in this space.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Karoun Demirjian