Congress Wants to Punish Russia, but Can’t Dole Out the Punishment

On Capitol Hill, however, Republicans chafe at any suggestion that they have gone soft on Russia, and blame procedural snags on Democrats while offering a series of justifications for why the bill is problematic.

Several Republicans have been compelled to insist that they remain the hawks they have always been. “You know me on this issue,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m a Russia hawk.”

But still, the legislation languishes in the House, weeks after it passed in the Senate, 98 to 2.

The delay is an odd turn for a topic that engenders rare bipartisan support in Congress, where many lawmakers are eager to take harsh action against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. In the interim, an array of business interests — including energy companies, defense contractors and financial players — have sensed an opening to air their displeasure with a measure they fear could harm their profits.

“There seems to be a growing private-sector coalition developing to express their concerns, which we’re sensitive to,” said Marc T. Short, the White House legislative affairs chief. “Our primary concern is that we believe that the executive branch has foreign policy responsibility, and when you delegate to 535 members of Congress, you will not be acting as efficiently as you could.”

The tussle over the Russia sanctions legislation comes at the most awkward of times for the Trump administration, with the president and his team on the defensive about revelations about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting last year with a Kremlin-connected lawyer who promised him damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

While the White House’s position is not unusual — previous presidents, including Barack Obama, resisted giving Congress power over sanctions, asserting that it would curb their authority to conduct foreign policy — the fight has taken on outsize political significance for Mr. Trump, whom many lawmakers fear cannot be trusted when it comes to Russia.

On Wednesday, House Democrats introduced a measure identical to the Senate’s bill. The effort was aimed largely at proving a point: If Republicans refuse to act, they are simply carrying the water of an administration that has defied decades of conservative policy doctrine on Russia.

The White House appeared ready to keep up the pressure on House Republicans, apparently undeterred by the controversies surrounding the younger Mr. Trump, the continuing Russia investigations, and fallout from last week’s meeting between the president and Mr. Putin in Germany.

“In the current form, the legislation poses a number of risks to the U.S. government’s ability to conduct foreign policy,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary. But she declined to say whether Mr. Trump would veto the measure. “Until they get further in the process, we’re not going to weigh in any further,” she said.

Numerous administration officials concede privately that, especially in the current political environment, Mr. Trump can ill afford a veto fight with the Republican-controlled Congress over Russia sanctions legislation.

Behind the scenes, administration officials have been trying to persuade lawmakers to reconsider the bill. Officials from the State Department and the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers and enforces sanctions, have visited Capitol Hill in recent days to explain their objections.

Mr. Ryan explained the holdup as the product of both procedural and policy problems. He said the bill had a “constitutional issue,” known as a blue slip, requiring measures that raise government revenue to originate in the House.


Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, in June. He said Wednesday that delays in the Senate in passing a sanctions bill against Moscow were “doing nothing but helping Russia.” Credit Doug Mills The New York Times

He also echoed the concerns of Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, arguing that the Senate version could “actually inadvertently help Russian oligarchs and oil firms.” American companies are concerned that the broadly worded legislation could effectively cut them out of a vast array of global deals, even those in which Russia plays an insignificant role.

“Russia deserves to be punished for its attempts to disrupt our election — and for other egregious actions — but Congress needs to slow down and do this right,” said Steve Forbes, a former Republican presidential candidate and an ally of Mr. Trump.

In the Senate, Republicans’ patience is ebbing for the bill, which is tied to sanctions against Iran, to be cleared and sent to Mr. Trump.

“Dillydallying around about the blue-slip issue was just a ridiculous waste of time,” Mr. Corker said, adding, a bit ominously, “Every day that goes by, as y’all know around here, mischief can happen.”

House Republicans have laid the blame squarely at Democrats’ feet. They say that a resolution to the blue-slip issue has been tied up because House Democrats object to language that would prevent the minority party from raising resolutions of disapproval if the White House seeks to weaken the sanctions.

Given their majority, there is nothing stopping House Republicans from proceeding on their own. Mr. Ryan explained reluctance to do that, however, saying, “we’ve never moved a bill on the blue-slip issue in a partisan way.”

“I want to keep that bipartisan,” he said.

It is not lost on Republicans that any further holdups would fuel perceptions that the party’s congressional majorities are willing to do Mr. Trump’s bidding.

Representative Carlos Curbelo, Republican of Florida, said it was “irresponsible” to postpone action on the measure.

“Clearly there is strong, bipartisan support in the Congress for holding the Russian government accountable for the many things that they have done to hurt our interests here at home and abroad,” he said. “This is the will of the American people. It is the will of overwhelming majorities in both chambers.”

The administration’s lobbying appears, at least for the time being, to have had the desired effect. As lawmakers haggled behind the scenes, a senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to characterize private negotiations, said Wednesday that it appeared the White House had won additional time for its case that the bill needed changes.

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