House and Senate Democrats are pressuring their Republican colleagues to bring to the floor legislation introduced in response to President Donald Trump’s comments — and revisions to those comments — this week on Russian interference in U.S. elections.
Democratic House leaders released a bipartisan package that includes 17 previously introduced bills that would further restrict the White House’s foreign policy and economic options when it comes to Moscow.
The package (HR 6437) has two Republican cosponsors, including Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who is chairwoman of the House Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee. Stefanik, who quickly emerged as a leader on the Armed Services panel, includes cyber in her subcommittee's portfolio.
In the Senate, Democrats, with some assistance from Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona, tried to use the unanimous consent process to pass resolutions reaffirming the U.S. intelligence community’s findings of Russia’s 2016 election interference but were blocked by other Republicans.
While agreeing in principle to some sort of legislative response, Republicans have argued in favor of regular order and the committee markup process.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday said he has asked the Foreign Relations and Banking committees to hold hearings on implementation of last year’s omnibus sanctions law (PL 115-44), which included mandatory economic penalties for Russia’s energy and defense sectors.
The Kentucky Republican said he wants the committees to come up with potential “additional measures that could respond to or deter Russian malign behavior.”
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Though several House Republicans co-sponsored individual bills contained in the package released Thursday, only Stefanik and Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina have signed on as co-sponsors of the broader package.
Among the bills included in the package is legislation (HR 463) from Reps. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., and Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, that would prohibit the U.S. government from recognizing Russia’s military annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
Another component is legislation (HR 530) from House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., and Connolly that would sanction any foreign individual caught interfering in U.S. elections, deny them entry to the United States and freeze any of their U.S. assets.
House Financial Services ranking member Maxine Waters of California included her bill (HR 2145), which would repeal previously issued national security waivers to the White House that allow it to provide licenses on a case-by-case basis to U.S. firms that want to do business with Russia’s oil sector.
Stefanik has two bills (HR 5354, HR 5910) in the package that would together require the State Department to permanently re-establish its sanctions office, require reporting on Putin’s bank accounts, authorize enhanced NATO cooperation, and require enhanced reporting of U.S.-based foreign media under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill (S 2313) before the Senate Banking Committee that would directly target Russia’s largest banks and oil companies and sanction the purchase of Russian sovereign debt attracted eight new cosponsors this week after previously receiving little attention since its introduction in January.
The sponsors of the bill, Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., announced that Senate Intelligence ranking member Mark Warner, D-Va., Foreign Relations Asia-Pacific Subcommittee Chairman Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Chris Coons, D-Del., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., had all signed on as cosponsors.
The legislation is seen as a kind of “nuclear” option among sanctions bills because to impose the sanctions it mandates, if further Russian election interference is detected, would almost certainly mean widespread economic harm to European partners as well as a number of American companies. It also is unclear if the U.S. Treasury Department has the resources required to enforce the bill’s secondary-sanctions targeting much of Russia’s banking and energy sectors.
Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who has not signed on to the bill, on Thursday outlined in a floor speech his own plan to introduce legislation that would close some of the “loopholes” in last summer’s omnibus sanctions law, while also bolstering energy and cyber sanctions on Russia, imposing new sanctions on Russian sovereign debt, and elevating pressure on those closest to Putin.
“We do not need to wait and see whether Russia attacks the 2018 election,” Menendez said. “We know it is happening and we need to ramp up the pressure now. No waiting.”
Alabama Rep. Martha Roby survived her Republican primary runoff Tuesday night, rebounding from her sharp criticism of President Donald Trump in 2016 that sparked several challenges this year.
With 47 percent of precincts reporting, Roby led with 67 percent of the vote to 33 percent for party-switching former Rep. Bobby Bright, when The Associated Press called the 2nd District race.
Bright, who served a term in Congress as a Democrat before losing to Roby in 2010, took heat for previously voting for Nancy Pelosi for speaker.
Roby had originally looked in danger of losing in the primary after she drew several GOP challengers. She sparked a backlash from Alabama Republicans in 2016 after she joined a slew of GOP lawmakers in declaring she would not vote for Trump after the leak of the Access Hollywood tape, in which the GOP candidate bragged about grabbing women by the genitals.
She won a fourth term that fall by just 9 points, with a last-minute anti-Roby write-in campaign taking 11 percent of the vote.
After careful efforts to improve her working relationship with the White House and to remind voters of her conservative credentials, Roby won Trump’s endorsement last month. But it didn’t come until after after she was forced into the runoff, following her failure to win a majority of the GOP primary vote on June 5.
Roby did have some help from outside groups in her race against Bright. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was up on television supporting her. Winning for Women, a group backing Republican female candidates, also invested in digital ads on her behalf.
Roby will be the heavy favorite in the fall against Democratic business analyst Tabitha Isner. Trump carried the 2nd District, which stretches from the Montgomery metropolitan area to southeastern Alabama’s wiregrass region, by 32 points in 2016.
Two of the most prominent Democratic socialists in the country see an opportunity to exert their influence in an unlikely place: deep-red Kansas.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the 76-year-old senator from Vermont, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Democratic candidate from the Bronx who knocked off longtime Rep. Joe Crowley in their New York primary last month, are headed to the western Kansas City suburbs Friday to rally Democrats ahead of the state's August 7 primaries.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez will anchor a nighttime rally for Brent Welder, a labor lawyer who’s running in the crowded Democratic primary in the 3rd District for the opportunity to square off against GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder.
America’s heartland is an unusual place for any political movement with the word “socialist” attached to it to take its message.
President Donald Trump won Kansas by more than 20 points in 2016.
But progressives see potential avenues in the state’s 2nd and 3rd Districts to take down moderate Democrats in the August primary and compete against incumbent GOP Rep. Lynn Jenkins and Yoder in November.
Hillary Clinton narrowly edged Trump in Yoder’s 3rd District in 2016. And Democrats have seen more than 20-point swings in special elections in some states and districts over the last year and a half, including in Kansas’ 4th District.
Liberals have argued that to win some of the more difficult races on Democrats’ target list, they’ll have to drum up support not just from traditional voter bases but new voters who lean more progressive.
“If you’re going to flip the district, you have to get new people involved in the political process,” Sanders spokesman Josh Miller-Lewis told The Associated Press. “There are so many people not involved.”
At least one GOP consultant indicated Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s trip to Kansas is indicative of a broader trend in grassroots politics of candidates penetrating nontraditional areas of the electorate to deliver messages of change.
“They think they're leaders of a movement, and they are leaders of a movement,” the consultant said of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s as interesting as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump going to all 50 states during the 2016 campaign to make the case that they can be the ones to change their party” to advocate for the forgotten person's political needs.
“The only way [Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez] are going to get the change they want is to get not just people in New York but people in Kansas to agree with them,” the consultant said.
The pair will also stump in Wichita for James Thompson, a civil rights lawyer running in Kansas’ 4th District. Thompson lost by 6 points in a 2017 special election to Rep. Ron Estes, just months after Trump thrashed Clinton in the district by 27 points.
Inside Elections rates that race Solid Republican.
— Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.Watch: Democratic Candidates Raise Millions in Second Quarter Fundraising
The Senate will soon take up a Defense spending bill that would cut nearly $2.5 billion in military aid to foreign fighting forces, an unusually large budget subtraction some say reflects a fundamental change in lawmakers’ security priorities.
At issue is the $675 billion fiscal 2019 Defense money bill, which Senate Appropriations approved late last month and which the chamber may take up later this month.
The measure would downsize President Donald Trump’s requests for programs that equip or train militaries and militias that are combating terrorists on America’s behalf in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and beyond. Some of the proposed cuts are reductions to the president’s fiscal 2019 budget request, and some are so-called rescissions of fiscal 2018 funding that hasn’t yet been spent.
The nearly $2.5 billion in recommended cuts is one of the largest changes to any category of defense spending in either the Senate’s Pentagon appropriations bill or the House’s, and it would stand out as one of the heftiest reductions to any single category of defense programs in recent memory, analysts said.
“It’s an unusually large amount to cut,” said Mark Cancian, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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Because the Senate is considering cutting fully $1.9 billion more from such programs than the House-passed bill, this is shaping up as one of the biggest discrepancies that must be reconciled before a final Pentagon spending bill can be written.
The House and Senate differences over military aid have to be sorted out in the context of a broader disagreement over how much to reorder the president’s budget request.
Specifically, the Senate bill would allocate about $8.6 billion more than Trump proposed for developing and procuring weapons. By comparison, the House would add much less for investments in research and procurement spending — just over $2.6 billion more than Trump wanted.
Senate appropriators and authorizers have been more vocal than their House counterparts in arguing that Trump’s budget does not reorient Pentagon programs decisively enough away from combat against al Qaida and the Islamic State and instead toward more rapid modernization of the U.S. arsenal to prepare for fighting nations that wield cutting-edge military forces.
The Senate appropriators’ reductions to military aid programs do not appear to represent a withdrawal of congressional support for counterterrorism missions, so much as a reduction in their priority relative to other increasingly pressing goals, experts say.
The Senate bill “reflects a change in priorities from counterterrorism to conflicts with great powers like Russia and China,” Cancian said.
Senate aides agree that reducing spending on military aid programs will free up more money to modernize U.S. weaponry, but they contend that the aid cuts would have occurred anyway, mainly because the president requested more money for those programs than they need.
The nearly $2.5 billion in Senate Appropriations cuts to military aid would come in four major programs:
Coalition Support Fund. This account reimburses U.S. allies, mainly Pakistan, for their costs in fighting terrorism.
Since fiscal 2015, defense authorization acts have required the administration to certify that Pakistan is helping, instead of hurting, the fight against terrorism before such funds are spent. Those certifications have not been made, and Trump announced in January that he is ceasing most military aid to Pakistan.
As a result, large sums of Coalition Support Fund appropriations are as yet unspent. So Senate appropriators are rescinding the $800 million appropriation for fiscal 2018. Their House counterparts want to rescind only $350 million of it.
Afghanistan Security Forces Fund. In addition, the Senate plan would reduce the president’s fiscal 2019 request for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund, money to train and equip that country’s military and police. The Senate bill would subtract $533 million from the fund, decreasing it from $5.2 billion down to the current level of spending, which is $4.7 billion.
The Senate panel’s stated reason for the decision: The Pentagon has not adequately detailed how the Afghanistan program’s money has been spent to date. The House, by comparison, makes no such cuts.
Countering ISIS. The third area of proposed Senate cuts would occur in the so-called Counter ISIS Train and Equip Fund, which bankrolls forces in Syria and Iraq fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS.
U.S. and coalition forces have pushed the group out of most of its territory in those countries, though about 1,000 square miles reportedly remains in the group’s hands.
The Senate panel would cut $406 million out of the administration’s $1.4 billion request for the anti-ISIS program. The House would reduce the same program by just $25 million.
More than half of the Senate’s proposed fiscal 2019 cut, or $250 million, is just a bookkeeping shift of funds from one part of the budget to another, aides said. But the rest of the Senate cuts in the counter-ISIS program are, like the cuts to the Afghanistan aid, due to the Pentagon’s failure to fully explain its spending, the Senate report said.
The Senate committee also took back $400 million from the anti-ISIS fund’s fiscal 2018 appropriation, a move the House did not make.
Military sales. The final set of reductions to military aid would take place in the budget for the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which finances sales of U.S. military equipment to allies. Under the Senate bill, the president’s fiscal 2019 request for that agency would drop $200 million, and another $150 million in fiscal 2018 money would be subtracted.
The reason, aides said: The agency has not been able to spend all the money it has received for several years running.
The House committee decreased the defense security agency’s proposed budget by a net $243 million. The House report said the cut occurred partly because some programs had been transferred out of the agency’s budget and partly because House appropriators decided to subtract some $93 million from the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, a program that provides assistance to allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
The military aid programs are funded in the Overseas Contingency Operations section of the budget. That budget would total just under $68 billion in the Senate bill, or nearly the same level as the request, despite the cuts to military aid and other OCO programs.
The Senate panel was able to essentially fully fund the OCO request because it provided more money in the OCO account by shifting about $3.4 billion from the base budget’s operations and maintenance accounts to the war budget’s similar accounts.
That $3.4 billion was not all that was taken out of the base budget’s operations accounts. All told, nearly $5.5 billion was subtracted from the $199.5 billion request for operations spending in the base budget.
Subtracting that $5.5 billion from the base budget’s operations account — and taking another $1.4 billion from the personnel account — provided the bulk of the funds the committee needed to pay for $8.6 billion above the requested amounts for researching and procuring weapons and other gear.
The Senate panel wants to spend much of that $8.6 billion on fighter jets, warships, anti-missile interceptors and a National Guard equipment fund, all programs that are also House priorities.
But the Senate panel said that it focused nearly half of that additional modernization money, or about $3.8 billion, on seven next-generation programs: hypersonics, space, cyber, artificial intelligence, microelectronics, lasers and improved testing ranges for new weapons.
Senate appropriators and authorizers alike are concerned that the rhetoric of the administration’s National Defense Strategy about moving to some degree away from counterterrorism and toward competition against major powers was not matched by enough changes in the fiscal 2019 budget request.
“While the NDS recognizes the persistent nature of terrorist threats and the need to counter those threats, it also represents a significant shift toward long-term, strategic competition and operations in contested domains,” the Senate Appropriations report said.
When Senate Appropriations passed its bill, Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama said the seven cutting-edge technologies that netted $3.8 billion in unrequested funds will be needed “to defend our nation in an increasingly complex and competitive national security environment.”
The White House has scaled back foreign aid budgets, but when it comes to military aid in particular, administration officials have given no signals that they approve of cuts.
The White House has yet to issue a Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate’s defense spending bill, but in the White House statement on the Senate authorization bill, Trump’s aides strongly opposed provisions that would merely withhold, but not cut, some anti-ISIS funding, pending submission to Congress of reports on the conflict.
“Restrictions on or gaps in funds that underpin the U.S. strategy of defeating ISIS by, with, and through partner forces — including the vetted Syrian Democratic Forces — would impede our ability to secure a lasting defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and would limit the Secretary of Defense’s ability to act in the national security interest of the United States,” the White House statement said.
Asked for the Pentagon’s reaction to the proposed cuts to foreign military aid, Army Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza, a spokeswoman, said, “I am not going to be able to provide comment on pending legislation.”