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Congress strikes Russia sanctions deal

July 23, 2017

A bill supported by the Democrats and the Republicans would give Congress the power to review any change in foreign policy toward Russia proposed by President Trump. The sanctions also target Iran and North Korea.

Russian and US flags with barbed wire
Image: picture-alliance/chromorange

The White House supports the sanctions bill that the US House of Representatives likely will vote on this week, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, though the president's hands are largely tied on the matter.

"We support where the legislation is now and will continue working with the House and Senate to put those tough sanctions in place on Russia until the situation in Ukraine is fully resolved and it certainly isn't right now," Sanders said on the ABC program "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

"The original piece of legislation was poorly written," she added.

Read more: Key figure in US, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak goes home

However, Sanders' new boss, Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, was non-committal on whether US President Donald Trump would sign the measure into law. 

"My guess is that he's going to make that decision shortly," Scaramucci told CNN.

US Senator Ben Cardin
Democrats Senator Ben Cardin says Trump would be powerless to veto the billImage: picture alliance/AP Images/C. Kaster

Veto proof

But even if Trump were to veto the sanctions bill, formally titled Countering Iran's Destabilizing Activities Act, the bill would likely come into effect through an override vote backed by a two-thirds majority in Congress, given the measure's broad bi-partisan support. A previous incarnation of the bill's Russia sanctions measure passed the Senate in June in a 97-2 vote.

"I think (it) will pass probably overwhelmingly again in the Senate and with a veto-proof majority," Senator John Thune, a member of the Republican leadership, said on "Fox News Sunday."

Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the bill had bipartisan support and lawmakers would be able to override a veto by Trump.

"It has broad support in the Senate and in the House. If he vetoes the bill, we will override the veto," Cardin said.

Steny Hoyer, democratic representative from Maryland and the party's number two in the House, said in a statement that he was pleased that a bipartisan agreement had been reached, allowing lawmakers "to exercise our oversight role over the Administration's implementation of sanctions." 

Lawmakers said they were planning a vote for as soon as Tuesday after agreeing on the package on Saturday.

A previous version of the bill that encompassed only Iran and Russia had been approved overwhelmingly by the Senate last month. 

Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who pushed to have North Korea sanctions included in the bill, tweeted that, "Those who threaten America and our interests should take notice - your actions have consequences."

Mandate to review Trump proposals

In uniting across the aisle on the legislation, lawmakers from both parties may end up clashing with the White House. It has in the past objected to the bill's central component, which mandates a congressional review if President Donald Trump attempts to "significantly alter" the country's foreign policy toward Russia, which includes the lifting of sanctions or the return of contested property.

If Trump were to propose such policy changes, Congress would have 30 days to review his proposals and either yay or nay the president's desired changes. Democrats had originally alleged that Republicans had cut them out of the review process - a technical measure that appears to have been resolved.

The mandate is styled after a 2015 bill lobbied for by Republicans that gave Congress a vote on whether then-President Barack Obama could ease sanctions on Iran.

Putin and Trump met face-to-face for the first time at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
Putin and Trump met face-to-face for the first time at the G20 summit in Hamburg. Trump called the meeting "honor."Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Vucci

Trump and his administration are currently facing intense scrutiny for their relationship to Russia as investigations are probing whether the Trump campaign team had any ties to Russia in the run-up to the November 2016 presidential election.

Read more: Exxon fined over Tillerson-era disregard for US' Russia sanctions

Given the unity backing the bill, if Trump were able to veto the bill once it lands on his Oval Office desk, he would run the risk of both inflaming public criticism and having his rejection overridden by a two-thirds vote in Congress.

Read more: Donald Trump claims he has 'complete power' to pardon

With respect to Iran, sanctions would hit people involved in the country's ballistic missile program and enforce an arms embargo.

The bill's North Korea sanctions pushed for by McCarthy originally passed a House vote 419-1 in a stand-alone form in May but were never put to a vote by the Senate. The current proposal imposes prohibitions on North Korean ships, and on products made by forced labor in North Korea from entering the US.

EU uneasy

The announcement of Congress' intention to beef-up US sanctions on Russia was greeted with concern from European Union officials, who urged Washington to coordinate with its partners in the G7, who have imposed sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea and support for separatist rebels in the east of the country.

The European Commission warned in a statement of "wide and indiscriminate" "unintended consequences" that the sanctions could have.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Trump at a G7 summit in May
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Trump at a G7 summit in MayImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

"We understand that the Russia/Iran sanctions bill is driven primarily by domestic considerations," the statement read, going on to underline the need to coordinate internationally on new sanctions.

"We are concerned the measures discussed in the US Congress could have unintended consequences, not only when it comes to Transatlantic/G7 unity, but also on EU economic and energy security interests. This impact could be potentially wide and indiscriminate, including when it comes to energy sources diversification efforts."

Officials in Brussels are particularly worried that US sanctions could interfere with EU attempts to negotiate with Russia on a Baltic gas pipeline project.

aw, cmb/rt (Reuters, AP)