CAPITOL HILL - The U.S. Senate voted 98-2 Thursday to approve sweeping sanctions against Russia and make it harder for President Donald Trump to ease punitive measures against Moscow.
“We have no time to waste,” said Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. “The United States of America needs to send a strong message to [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy.”
“We must not allow this kind of interference in our elections become a normal process,” said Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Adopted overwhelmingly as an amendment to an Iran sanctions bill, the measure targets Russia’s cyber espionage entities, energy sector, financial interests, and the flow of Russian weaponry to war zones like Syria.
“It expands the list of where sanctions can apply to the energy projects and foreign financial institutions,” said Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It provides for actors undermining cyber security being subject to sanctions. It provides sanctions against suppliers of Russian arms to Syria. It’s comprehensive.”
The measure also asserts a role for Congress if the White House opts to ease any sanctions against Moscow.
“The president can’t remove a sanction until he’s given Congress notice and an opportunity to review,” Cardin said. “We can have congressional hearings, we can put a spotlight on it. And then we have an expedited process where we could reject the president’s decision to give relief. And all during that process, the sanctions remain in place.”
The Trump administration reportedly is weighing the return of Russian compounds on U.S. soil seized by the Obama administration, and the president has repeatedly expressed a desire for better relations with Moscow while downplaying the impact of Russia’s cyber activities.
“It’s particularly significant that a bipartisan coalition is seeking to reestablish Congress, not the president, as the final arbiter of sanctions relief,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
McCain described existing punitive measures against Russia as “modest” and “reversible at the discretion of the president.”
“We must take our own side in this fight, not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans,” McCain said.
The White House has not said if Trump would sign or veto the legislation, which would have to be passed by the House of Representatives before it could go to the president‘s desk. Testifying this week on Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged the need to take action against Russia but warned against measures that would cut off dialogue with Moscow.
“We would ask for the flexibility to turn the heat up when we need to, but also to ensure that we have the ability to maintain a constructive dialogue,” Tillerson said.
The underlying bill imposed new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program and support for international terrorism. Lawmakers of both parties stressed the measures in no way target Iran’s nuclear program or the landmark international nuclear accord with Tehran.
“We see destabilizing act after destabilizing act [by Iran], from missile launches to arms transfers to terrorist training to illicit financial activities to targeting Navy ships and detaining American citizens,” said the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee.
“It’s past time for us to take steps to protect the interests of the United States and our allies. This bill is the first time Congress has come together since the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, to do just that,” Corker added.
“This bill will impose sanctions on Iran for its non-nuclear violations,“ Cardin said. “The debate we have here is on the non-nuclear activities of Iran that violate international norms and international agreements.”