Democrats Press GOP for Quick Legislative Response on Russia

Several measures in both chambers designed to push back on Putin

Protesters participate in a candlelight vigil in front of the White House Wednesday to protest President Donald Trump in the wake of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Congress could consider several bills in response to concerns about Russian meddling in the upcoming election. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

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.

[Podcast: Why Congress Has a Russia Problem]

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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House Democrats Make Their Move

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.

Senators Rush to Join Banking Bill

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.”

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