In a rare showing of bipartisan agreement, the United States Senate voted by overwhelming majority to enact new sanctions against the Russian government on Wednesday.  These sanctions directly address Russian cyber activities during the 2016 presidential election as well as Russia’s support of Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria.

The new sanctions, which were added as an amendment to a bill that aimed to increase sanctions on Iran, also includes language intended to make it more difficult for the sitting president to ease them if he sees fit.  Under this bill, which will still require House and executive approval, easing or removing sanctions on Russia would require a congressional review process in order to move forward.

Blocking this bill would reject the stricter sanctions aimed at Iran that were a part of the original document, meaning an executive veto would not only block stiffer Russian sanctions, but ones the president would likely support on Iran as well.

Technically, the bill calls for tightening on existing sanctions and the addition of new ones directed at Russian individuals and organizations for allegations ranging from corruption to human rights violations.  The sanctions also broadly target Russia’s mining, metals, shipping and railways sectors.

“We need this amendment because we have no time to waste,” said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. “The United States of America needs to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy.”

The bill passed with 97 Senators voting to approve the measure, and only two, Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky, opposing it.  It now moves on to the House for action.

“By codifying existing sanctions and requiring Congressional review of any decision to weaken or lift them, we are ensuring that the United States continues to punish President Putin for his reckless and destabilizing actions,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote in a statement.

“These additional sanctions will also send a powerful and bipartisan statement to Russia and any other country who might try to interfere in our elections that they will be punished.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson voiced some semblance of support for the bill in his testimony regarding President Trump’s budget proposal this week.  He did, however, caution that adding stipulations about congressional oversight on easing sanctions could limit the president’s negotiating hand.

“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.

When asked by Democrat Rep. Elliot Engel of New York about whether the U.S. would continue to place pressure on Russia per its obligation under the so-called Minsk accord, which called for peace in Ukraine prior to Russia’s military annexation of Crimea, Tillerson explained that he didn’t want to force America’s hand.

“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.”

Despite Tillerson’s reservations, many Republicans expressed their support for the measure, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was initially opposed to the measure, but ultimately played a large role in establishing the language of the Russian focused sanctions.  On Tuesday, Corker claimed President Trump’s administration should be supportive of the measure.

“I think the bill is a very, very strong signal to Russia, but it does provide the administration the flexibilities they need to conduct business,” Corker told reporters. “I think we struck a very good balance.”


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