CAPITOL HILL � New sanctions punishing Russia for its interference in last year's U.S. presidential election cleared a key step Tuesday as the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill expanding congressional checks on President Donald Trump's abilities to ease those penalties.
The new oversight powers were written into the law after more than a month of bi-partisan negotiations and procedural delays. An earlier version of the bill overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate in June by a 97-2 vote.
The House-approved legislation, passed 419-3, includes sanctions against Iran and North Korea in addition to sanctions punishing Russia for a range of activities.
These three regimes in different parts of the world are threatening vital U.S. interests and they are destabilizing their neighbors, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, a Republican from California, said on the House floor Tuesday.
Royce said the bill ensures the tough economic and diplomatic sanctions stay in place by empowering Congress to review and to disapprove sanctions relief.
If President Trump wants to play golf or do something with his crony Mr. Putin, he can count the Congress out because we're going to punish Mr. Putin, ranking House Foreign Affairs Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel told VOA shortly before the vote, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The bipartisan agreement on limits to Trump's powers over sanctions comes amid congressional investigations into alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
This is a significant restraint on President Trump because no president wants to lose the leverage of being able to take off sanctions, William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, told VOA. It's very rare in fact for Congress to assert this right, to legislate sanctions law. But clearly, with a whole series of political ramifications, it has done so in this case.
White House response
The Trump administration now supports the sanctions after objecting to the changes.
In the weeks leading up the vote, the White House pushed back on attempts to limit the executive branch's ability to unilaterally ease sanctions, making the case that it limits U.S. leverage in attempts to impact Russian behavior and build a better relationship with Putin.
If passed, the law would give Congress a fast-track procedure to disapprove of any moves the president makes to end the sanctions.
The president very much supports sanctions on those countries and wants to make sure that those remain, but at the same time wants to make sure that we get good deals. Those two things are both very important for the president, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday.
If Trump vetoed the bill, he would likely face a congressional override, as well as rejecting Iran and North Korea sanctions his administration supports.
The administration wants those sanctions on Iran and North Korea, Steve Pifer, director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VOA. The president will not like the fact the bill constrains him in terms of executive freedom to move on sanctions.
"But I think he [Trump] also has to consider that a veto would come at a price," Pifer said. "It would be seen as one more piece suggesting that in fact something improper was worked out between the Trump campaign and the Russians back during the election in 2016.
Changes in the House and Senate versions will have to be reconciled before heading to the president's desk for a signature.
Engel told VOA he is hopeful the Senate can resolve those issues before House lawmakers leave for their August recess at the end of this week.
Source: Voice of America