Senate Votes To Limit Trump's Power To Lift Russia Sanctions

Jun 15, 2017
Originally published on June 22, 2017 12:47 pm

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he wants flexibility as he tries to improve ties with Russia. U.S. lawmakers, however, are going in another direction.

The Senate has overwhelmingly passed a bill to impose new sanctions on Russia and to make sure the Trump administration doesn't change course without congressional buy-in.

Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, one of the sponsors of the legislation, says, "Americans are concerned about Russia's behavior in the Ukraine and Syria and they are concerned about Russia's increased cyber-intrusions. Many of us on both sides of the aisle feel the U.S. needs to be much stronger in its response to Russia."

Crapo says Russia's President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly belligerent, nationalistic and autocratic.

Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire adds that it was important to send a bipartisan message to the Kremlin, which she says tried to undermine U.S. elections.

"What we have heard from experts in the intel community: They've warned us that if Russia gets a pass on this, that it will interfere in future U.S. elections," Shaheen says. "We've seen that in Europe and other western democracies."

She's urging the House to follow suit with similar legislation and calling on President Trump to sign the measure, which is attached to the popular Iran sanctions bill.

Secretary Tillerson — testifying on the budget this week — is urging lawmakers to give him room to maneuver with Moscow.

"Essentially, we would ask for the flexibility to turn the heat up when we need to, but also to ensure we have the ability to maintain a constructive dialogue," Tillerson said.

At one House hearing, Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel of New York sought assurances that the U.S. would continue to pressure Russia to resolve the conflict it stirred up in Ukraine and fulfill its obligations under the so-called Minsk accord.

Tillerson suggested there may be other diplomatic options. "So my caution is I wouldn't want to have ourselves handcuffed to Minsk if it turns out the parties decide to settle this through different agreement."

Engel was unimpressed."The only thing that Russia understands is tough talk, and if they think we are somehow willing to relax the sanctions on them before they've complied with the Minsk framework and left Crimea, then I think it will just encourage Putin to continue his bullying and who knows where he will strike next."

Tillerson says U.S.-Russia relations are at a new low and he's trying to stabilize that.

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Members of the Senate have found something to agree on. Nearly all voted in favor of strengthening sanctions against Russia. The Senate vote on the bill was 97 to 2. Russia already faces sanctions for its actions in Ukraine, which President Trump had talked of lifting. His secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, would like flexibility in dealing with Russia, but this bill would make sanctions harder to lift without congressional approval. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Idaho Republican Mike Crapo is one of the sponsors of the legislation, which expands sanctions on Russia and ensures that the Trump administration can't ease up on the pressure without a congressional review.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL CRAPO: Americans are concerned about Russia's behavior in the Ukraine and Syria, and they're concerned about Russia's increased cyber intrusions. Many of us, on both sides of the aisle, feel that the United States needs to be much stronger in its response to Russia.

KELEMEN: The senator says Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has become increasingly belligerent, nationalistic and autocratic. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire adds it was important to send a bipartisan message to the Kremlin, which she says tried to undermine U.S. elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEANNE SHAHEEN: What we have heard from experts in the intelligence community - they have warned us that if Russia gets a pass on this, that it will interfere in future U.S. elections. We've seen it in Europe and other Western democracies.

KELEMEN: Shaheen is urging the House to follow suit with similar legislation and calling on President Trump to sign the measure, which is attached to the popular Iran sanctions bill. Secretary of State Tillerson, testifying on the budget this week, is urging lawmakers to give him room to maneuver with Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REX TILLERSON: Essentially, we would ask for the flexibility to turn the heat up when we need to but also to ensure we have the ability to maintain a constructive dialogue.

KELEMEN: At one House hearing, Democrat Eliot Engel sought assurances that the Trump administration would continue to pressure Russia to resolve the conflict it stirred up in Ukraine and fulfill its obligations under the so-called Minsk accord. Tillerson suggested there may be other diplomatic options.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TILLERSON: So my caution is - I wouldn't want to have ourselves handcuffed to Minsk if it turns out the parties decide to settle this through another - a different agreement.

KELEMEN: Engel was unimpressed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIOT ENGEL: The only thing that Russia understands is tough talk. And if they think that we're somehow willing to relax the sanctions on them before they've complied with the Minsk framework and left Crimea, I think it just will encourage Putin to continue his bullying. And who knows where he'll strike next?

KELEMEN: Secretary Tillerson says U.S.-Russia relations are at a new low, and he's trying to stabilize that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF NANOBYTE'S "SUSURRUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.