U.S. Congress passes bill limiting Trump's ability to lift Russia sanctions

Eager to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a new package of sanctions against Moscow that prohibits President Donald Trump from waiving the penalties without first getting permission from Congress.

President would need to seek approval from Congress before terminating Russia sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump hasn't threatened to reject the House bill, even though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior administration officials had objected to a mandated congressional review should the president attempt to ease or lift the sanctions on Russia. (David Dermer/The Vindicator via AP)

Eager to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday overwhelmingly backed a new package of sanctions against Moscow that prohibits President Donald Trump from waiving the penalties without first getting permission from Congress.

Lawmakers passed the legislation 419-3, clearing the far-reaching measure for action by the Senate. If senators move quickly, the bill could be ready for Trump's signature before Congress exits Washington for its regular August recess. The Senate, like the House, is expected to pass the legislation by a veto-proof margin. The bill also slaps Iran and North Korea with sanctions.

The 184-page measure serves as a rebuke of the Kremlin's military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed President Bashar al-Assad. It aims to hit Putin and the oligarchs close to him by targeting Russian corruption, human rights abusers, and crucial sectors of the Russian economy, including weapons sales and energy exports.

"It is well past time that we forcibly respond," said congressman Ed Royce, a Republican from California and chairman of the House foreign affairs committee.

The first Kremlin response on Tuesday decried the vote as a step back in relations between the countries.

"Right now we can say that this is rather sad news from the point of view of Russia-U.S. ties and their further development," said Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, on a conference call Wednesday with reporters. "This is no less disheartening from the point of view of international law and international trade relations."

Trump hasn't threatened to reject the bill even though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other senior administration officials had objected to a mandated congressional review should the president attempt to ease or lift the sanctions on Russia. They've argued it would infringe on the president's executive authority and tie his hands as he explores avenues of communication and co-operation between the two former Cold War foes.

'We're sending a message to Moscow'

But Trump's persistent overtures to Russia are what pushed lawmakers to include the sanctions review. Many lawmakers view Russia as the nation's top strategic adversary and believe more sanctions, not less, put the U.S. in a position of strength in any negotiations with Moscow.

Trump's "rhetoric toward the Russians has been far too accommodating and conciliatory, up to this point," said congressman Charlie Dent, Republican from Pennsylvania.

"Russian behaviour has been atrocious," Dent said. "They deserve these enhanced sanctions. Relations with Russia will improve when Russian behaviour changes and they start to fall back into the family of nations."

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated Sunday the president would sign the sanctions bill. But on Monday, Sanders said Trump is 'going to study that legislation and see what the final product looks like.' (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, said Congress "is uncomfortable with any rapprochement with Moscow without getting some things for it." But he said the legislation isn't intended to be a message to Trump.

"We're sending a message to Moscow," Kinzinger said. "But if the president had any intention of trying to give Vladimir Putin what he wants on certain areas, I think he'll think twice about it."

Heavy support for the bill from Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate has effectively scuttled the potential for Trump to derail the legislation. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated Sunday the president would sign the sanctions bill. But on Monday, Sanders said Trump is "going to study that legislation and see what the final product looks like."

'We cannot afford any more delay'

Signing a bill that penalizes Russia's election interference would mark a significant shift for Trump. He's repeatedly cast doubt on the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia sought to tip the election in his favour. He's blasted as a "witch hunt" investigations into the extent of Russia's interference and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.

According to the bill, Trump is required to send Congress a report explaining why he wants to suspend or terminate a particular set of the sanctions on Russia. Lawmakers would then have 30 days to decide whether to allow the move or reject it.

"There'll be no side deals or turning a blind eye to [Russia's] actions," said congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat.

The North Korea-related sanctions bar ships owned by the reclusive nation or by countries that refuse to comply with UN resolutions against Pyongyang from operating in American waters or docking at U.S. ports. Goods produced by North Korea's forced labour would be prohibited from entering the United States.

The sanctions package also imposes mandatory penalties on people involved in Iran's ballistic missile program and anyone who does business with them. The measure would apply terrorism sanctions to the country's Revolutionary Guards and enforce an arms embargo. Democrats said the new sanctions on Iran don't conflict with the Iran nuclear deal

A version of the sanctions legislation that only addressed Russia and Iran cleared the Senate nearly six weeks ago with 98 votes. Lawmakers have questioned whether the bill may hit a hurdle in the Senate, which hasn't yet fully considered the North Korea section of the bill. But Royce said he made specific procedural tweaks to get the bill passed and to Trump before Congress leaves town for a month.

"We cannot afford any more delay," he said.

The three House members who voted against the bill are Republicans Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Justin Amash of Michigan and John Duncan of Tennessee.

With files from Reuters