US Congress breaks impasse on Bill to slap sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea

US President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7, 2017.
US President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany on July 7, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - A weeks-long impasse over imposing new financial sanctions on Iran and Russia has been broken, with the House preparing to vote this week on a Bill that would prevent President Donald Trump from lifting measures against Moscow.

House leaders agreed to vote on an expanded version of the Bill after adding sanctions aimed at freezing North Korea's nuclear program and draining the government of revenue to fund it. The measures against Pyongyang, which passed the House 419 to 1 as a stand-alone Bill in May, were inserted at the request of House Republican leaders.

Should the Bill pass the House and Senate, it would pose a difficult veto dilemma for Trump, whose presidency has been enveloped in questions about his ties to Russia. The administration has not issued a formal veto threat, but several officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have spoken out against it.

While some details have yet to be finalised, congressional aides said, the Bill is set for a vote on Tuesday, according to a schedule circulated on Saturday (July 22) by House Majority Leader and California Republican Kevin McCarthy. The legislation will move under special, expedited procedures for non-controversial bills expected to pass with a two-thirds majority - enough support to overcome a presidential veto.

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The Bill, however, has hardly had a smooth ride.

An initial Senate Bill - which slapped new sanctions on Iran in response to its ballistic missile testing and on Russia for its meddling in the 2016 US presidential election - passed in June on a vote of 98 to 2.

Critically, the punitive measures against Moscow could be lifted only with congressional approval, a departure from the flexibility that presidents are traditionally given to conduct foreign policy.

But the Bill hit an immediate procedural snag over claims that it ran afoul of the constitutional requirement that revenue Bills originate in the House. The roadblock came as Trump administration officials stepped up a lobbying campaign against the Bill, prompting Democrats to accuse House GOP leaders of stalling on Trump's behalf.

New obstacles emerged earlier this month. House Democrats objected to Senate changes to the bill that could freeze out the House minority's ability to block sanctions relief. And the oil-and-gas industry raised concerns that US companies could be frozen out of projects with Russian partners.

Last week, McCarthy added a twist by proposing that the sanctions against North Korea, which the House had already endorsed, be attached to the Senate Bill. Democrats accused them of trying to delay the legislation's progress through Congress, and even Senate Republicans seemed surprised by, if still potentially amenable to, the request.

But according to multiple congressional aides, negotiations continued behind the scenes this past week, with McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, working to strike a compromise, along with Senators Bob Corker and Benjamin Cardin, the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The version of the Bill posted on a House website just before midnight on Friday addresses House procedural concerns about which chamber the Bill would originate from, removes the provision that blacklists energy companies from entering into oil development projects if any Russian firm is involved, and delays defence and intelligence sector sanctions while asking the administration to clarify which Russian entities would fall within those sectors.

The Bill also protects a 30-day window for Congress to take steps to block the president if he tries to roll back any sanctions imposed against Russia - a sign that lawmakers were unmoved by the Trump administration's lobbying effort to get them to scale back the congressional review power in the bill.

McCarthy and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward Royce, said in a joint statement Saturday that the revised Bill "will now exclusively focus on these nations and hold them accountable for their dangerous actions."

The new version does not, however, give House Democrats an expedited mechanism for getting resolutions objecting to the president's proposed actions to the floor. Only in cases where the Senate has already passed a resolution of disapproval does the sanctions Bill insist that it be put to a House vote in short order, regardless of the whims of the House majority leaders.

Hoyer, the bill's chief negotiator for House Democrats, nevertheless defended the bill as strong. "The legislation ensures that both the Majority and Minority are able to exercise our oversight role over the Administration's implementation of sanctions," Hoyer said in a statement. "Other changes made to the bill will ensure effective and unified implementation among partners and make provisions more workable."

Some House Democrats are worried about another potential snag: that the last-minute insertion of a new roster of North Korea sanctions "will cause further procedural delays in the Senate," according to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. If the House passes the Bill that leaders unveiled late Friday night, senators would be forced to start from scratch and take up the bill again.

The Senate has not yet had the chance to vet the sanctions against Pyongyang.

But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, issued a statement Saturday praising the breakthrough and calling for swift passage."Given the many transgressions of Russia, and President Trump's seeming inability to deal with them, a strong sanctions bill such as the one Democrats and Republicans have just agreed to is essential," he said.