Senate Mulls Combining Russia Sanctions With Iran Penalty Bill

  • Senate GOP leader McConnell says he supports the move
  • Sanctions would punish Russia for election-meddling, Ukraine

Republican and Democratic U.S. senators signaled support Wednesday for adding strengthened sanctions against Russia to a measure that would impose economic penalties against Iran over that nation’s ballistic missile program.

The Senate voted Wednesday to advance the Iran measure, S. 722. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he supported the effort to add the Russia sanctions before final passage. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Corker, sponsor of the Iran measure, and Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo have been working toward a bipartisan agreement with top Democrats.

"There’s a lot of impatience that Russia meddled in our election and there really hadn’t been a response," said Texas Senator John Cornyn, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, who supported the measure.

The move is a signal that some in Congress intend to push back on President Donald Trump’s efforts to improve relations with Moscow. Congressional committees and the FBI are investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and whether there was any collusion with Trump’s campaign. Trump has dismissed the probes as "fake news" and a witch hunt in messages on Twitter.

The penalties against Russia also would be intended to punish that country over its actions in Ukraine and Syria.

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A proposal by Crapo of Idaho and Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio would codify and strengthen existing sanctions included in executive orders affecting Russian energy projects and debt financing. It would add sanctions targeting sectors of Russia’s economy including mining, metals and railways.

A State Department official said on condition of anonymity that the agency believes the existing sanctions created by executive orders are the best way to pressure Russia to resolve the Ukraine crisis.

McConnell spokesman David Popp said votes on a Russia sanctions amendment and final passage of the bill will probably occur next week. The provisions relating to Iran would authorize Trump to impose economic sanctions on businesses or individuals that knowingly provide Iran with material support for ballistic missile testing and terrorism activities.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said in an interview that the current plan would merge the existing bills on Iran and Russia, though the specifics aren’t resolved. The lawmaker, a co-sponsor of both bills, said Democrats discussed the plan in a private meeting Tuesday and he expected widespread agreement.

"There’s tremendous support," he said.

Democrat Tom Carper of Delaware voted against advancing the Iran measure, saying "our timing is wrong" after an attack by Islamic State earlier in the day killed at least 12 people at Iran’s parliament. 

"There is no question that the Iranian government must change its behavior," Carper said, but added that Congress shouldn’t ignore the fact that Iran has complied with the nuclear agreement reached with the Obama administration.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is a sponsor of a separate Russian sanctions bill, has expressed doubts about collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. But he said Wednesday there is "no doubt" that Moscow meddled in the campaign.

"We’re going to pound the hell out of them" with the sanctions, he said.

— With assistance by Nick Wadhams, and Steven T. Dennis

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