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Donald Trump

Congress poised to seize control of Russia policies from Trump, barring him from unilaterally lifting sanctions

Deal is struck between Senate and House leaders to push through bill granting Congress power to veto Trump if he tries to alter Russia policies

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 July, 2017, 2:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 July, 2017, 10:51pm

The US Congress has struck a deal to send President Donald Trump a bill that is poised limit his power to unilaterally lift sanctions against Russia. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said he reached an agreement with leaders in the House of Representatives to vote on their version of the legislation, passed Tuesday in a 419-to-3 vote. It includes sanctions on North Korea that Corker previously said could hold the bill up. The original Senate bill addressed only Iran and Russia and passed that chamber by 98-2 last month.

The bill grants Congress the power to veto any decision by the US President that would “significantly alter” policies relating to Russia.

“The Senate will move to approve the Iran and Russia sanctions it originally passed six weeks ago, as well as the North Korea sanctions developed by the House,” Corker, the Tennessee Republican, said in a statement. “Going forward, the House has committed to expeditiously consider and pass enhancements to the North Korea language, which multiple members of the Senate hope to make in the very near future.”

Passage would force Trump to either sign away part of his authority for unilateral action on sanctions against Russia or veto a bill that appears to have enough support to override such an attempt to block it from becoming law. That’s because Congress can override a presidential veto if it has two-thirds support in both the House and Senate.

Trump could veto the pending legislation in order to push for a tougher deal than the one winding through Congress, a top White House aide said yesterday.

“He may sign the sanctions exactly the way they are or he may veto the sanctions and negotiate an even tougher deal against the Russians,” Anthony Scaramucci, White House communications director, told CNN.

Russian relations are a sensitive topic for the Trump administration, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a special counsel in the Justice Department, and congressional committees are investigating connections between the president’s campaign and the Kremlin. Emails published by Trump’s son show that members of his family and inner circle met with Russians in the run up to last year’s election, having been offered the help of the Kremlin and damaging material on Hillary Clinton.

Taking a tough stance on Russia gives Republicans something to talk about as they head back to their districts for August recess following months of squabbling over health-care proposals and failure to produce a draft of their tax plan. The House is scheduled to leave Washington after this week, and the Senate has two more weeks to tackle its backlog of nominations and legislation, including this bill.

Threats of retaliation from Russia were almost immediate, following the House’s approval of this bill on Tuesday.

The sanctions are “pretty sad from the viewpoint of Russian-American relations and prospects for developing them, and no less depressing from the perspective of international law and international trade,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday on a conference call. Russian President Vladimir Putin will decide on a response if the bill becomes law, he said.

Trump will likely sign the law because “he’s a prisoner of Congress and anti-Russian hysteria,” Alexei Pushkov, a senator in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said on Twitter. The sanctions are “a new stage of confrontation,” he said.

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The Senate’s original bill focused on Iran sanctions that were modelled after executive orders from previous administrations. The Russia part was later added in an amendment.

That bill was sent to the House before Trump met Putin at the Group of 20 summit earlier this month, but Republican leaders said they couldn’t hold a vote that week due to procedural concerns. Officials from the Treasury and State departments met with a bipartisan group of House lawmakers to oppose the provision allowing lawmakers to block the president’s decision to lift sanctions.

The delay then gave time for companies to scale up their lobbying against parts of the bill, including a provision that would have restricted participation in international projects with even small Russia participation. That measure was changed last week to apply to only ventures with a 33 per cent stake from Russian firms.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also insisted in including North Korea sanctions as a way to force the Senate to vote on a bill the House passed by a large margin months ago. Corker’s statement about an agreement on this measure resolves concerns about further delays.

Additional reporting by Reuters