Senators Warn Tillerson About Backing New Russia Sanctions

Secretary of State nominee will face questions about Russian hacking Wednesday

Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin, John McCain and Lindsey Graham attended a news conference in the Capitol to introduce a bipartisan bill increasing sanctions on Russia.(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson might face hurdles to getting confirmed if he does not back a bipartisan plan to impose new sanctions on the Russian Federation.

Foreign Relations Ranking Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland led a bipartisan group of 10 senators in introducing expanded Russian sanctions legislation Tuesday in response to what the intelligence community has concluded was Kremlin hacking of the Democratic National Committee and military actions including the incursion into Ukraine.

"There is a difference between thuggery and strength, and this bill makes it crystal clear that the United States will not stand idly by and tolerate dictatorial actions, annexation or interventionism," said Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who is a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil CEO, should expect questions about the sanctions proposal during Wednesday's Foreign Relations confirmation hearing, according to the senators involved.

At the oil giant, Tillerson was described as a skeptic of U.S. efforts to impose sanctions on Russia, where ExxonMobil has done business.

"I've talked to many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Many of them have already met Mr. Tillerson, and I know this has been brought up in just about ever one of the meetings. So, I think you're going to see at tomorrow's hearing member's questioning him in some cases on specific provisions that are included in this legislation," Cardin said.

Cardin said that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of the co-sponsors of the bill, had signaled he would bring up the issue of sanctions on Wednesday.

Rubio declined to preview his line of inquiry Tuesday afternoon, but a spokesman said the senator met Tillerson in person Monday evening.

[Senate Foreign Relations Divided Over Tillerson Tax Returns]

“I appreciate Mr. Tillerson’s visit and for taking the time to begin discussing with me the challenges America faces around the world. I look forward to his confirmation hearing later this week," Rubio said in a statement.

South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who does not serve on the Foreign Relations panel but does oversee the State Department's appropriations, told reporters that Tillerson or Treasury Secretary pick Steven Mnuchin could be in trouble.

"I think they would have a problem with the Senate if they didn't acknowledge that the intelligence is solid around Russian interference in our election," Graham said. "The bottom line is if you don't want to do anything about what Russia did, if you don't believe they're a good candidate for additional sanctions, I think a lot of people are going to look at you as not having the judgement for the job."

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