US White House 'supports' current Russia sanctions legislation

White House press secretary-designate, speaks during a White House press briefing on July 21, 2017.
White House press secretary-designate, speaks during a White House press briefing on July 21, 2017.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The Trump administration "supports" the current version of a bill to sanction Russia for its actions during the 2016 elections that could soon land on President Donald Trump's desk for a signature, the White House press secretary said.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders' comments came after Republican and Democratic leaders in the House reached a tentative deal to move ahead this week on a measure that, among other things, would prevent the president from acting unilaterally to remove sanctions on Russia.

"The original piece of legislation was poorly written but we were able to work with the House and Senate. And the administration is happy with the ability to do that and make those changes that were necessary," Sanders said on ABC's This Week. "We support where the legislation is now."

Still, Sanders, appointed to her post on Friday (July 21) after the resignation of Sean Spicer, stopping short of confirming that Trump will sign the bill as written, and Anthony Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, said on CBS's Face the Nation that "I don't know the answer to whether the president will sign it."

If the president were to veto the bill, "we will override his veto," Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox News Sunday.

On the same show, Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, predicted that "in the end, the administration will come to the conclusion that an overwhelming majority of Congress has" that Russia should face sanctions for meddling in the 2016 election.

The apparent agreement to fix procedural concerns, add sanctions against North Korea, and modify provisions that would restrict the participation of US energy companies in some international projects, clears the way for a House vote next week. The White House had argued earlier that it needs flexibility to adjust economic sanctions against Moscow.

A version of the bill released by House Republican leaders includes changes sought since the Senate passed legislation in June that would prohibit U.S. businesses from working on or supporting energy projects that include any participation by Russian companies, even outside Russia's borders.

The new version would also set a threshold for Russian involvement, applying that restriction to projects where sanctioned Russian entities have at least a 33 per cent interest.

A separate procedural impasse would be resolved by allowing leaders from both the majority and minority parties in the Senate or House to force their respective chamber to consider an objection to White House action on sanctions. The original bill allowed any member of Congress in either chamber to force consideration of sanctions waivers. Senators can still introduce resolutions, with leadership approval.

'Intense Negotiations' The revised legislation was "the product of intense negotiations," Cardin said in an emailed statement on Saturday. With the changes, "a nearly united Congress is poised to send President (Vladimir) Putin a clear message on behalf of the American people and our allies, and we need President Trump to help us deliver that message," he said.

The legislation comes after US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia sought to influence the American presidential election last year. Congressional committees and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are examining the Russian interference and whether there was any collusion with President Donald Trump's campaign.

The measure gained urgency as evidence emerged in recent weeks that members of Trump's family and inner circle were in touch with Russians during last year's campaign. White House officials were on Capitol Hill earlier this month asking lawmakers to reconsider the Russia provisions that the Senate added to an Iran sanctions bill and passed 98-2.

North Korea The new version also will include sanctions against North Korea, modelled after language that passed the House 419-1 in May and hasn't been taken up by the Senate. The bill has been placed on a list of measures to be considered on the House floor on July 25 using a fast-track process passage that requires support of two-thirds of all House members voting. If the House passes the modified sanctions package, the Senate will hold another vote on the legislation that would now punish North Korea, Iran and Russia.

Trump would then be faced with signing legislation that takes away his power to act unilaterally on sanctions. If the president vetoes a law proposed in part to punish Russia for its documented interference in the 2016 US election, he risks the appearance of doing a favour for Moscow.

White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters declined to comment on the sanctions bill.

The No 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said the agreement "will hold Russia and Iran accountable for their destabilising actions around the world" while making provisions "more workable" and ensuring that both Republicans and Democrats are able to act as a check on administration action on sanctions.

But House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi signalled concern that the changes might delay the legislation. 

"While we support the tougher sanctions on North Korea, which the House has already passed, I am concerned that adding them to this bill instead of stand-alone legislation will cause further procedural delays in the Senate," Pelosi, of California, said in an emailed statement.

"It is essential that the addition of North Korea to this package does not prevent Congress from immediately enacting Russia sanctions legislation and sending it to the president's desk before the August recess," Pelosi said.

Pelosi's statement reflected some continued dissatisfaction with negotiations, including the latitude the agreement would give House members to quickly force a vote on an administration's sanctions action.

Senator Charles Schumer, the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate, called the compromise legislation "a strong sanctions bill". Top Senate Republicans hadn't issued formal statements of the sanctions deal as of midday Saturday.

The modified version represents a modest victory for oil companies, manufacturers and oilfield service firms that had argued the earlier, Senate-passed bill could jeopardise projects around the globe - even those that weaken Russia's ability to use its own natural gas as a political weapon. They had warned that under the Senate measure, Russia would be empowered to elbow US companies out of energy projects globally simply by making small investments in them.

The 33 per cent threshold that would be established under the compromise legislation likely is high enough to avoid disruptions at the giant Shah Deniz project in Azerbaijan, a chief alternative to Russia-sourced natural gas for Turkey. That project could have been swept up by the Senate-passed bill because Russia's Lukoil owns a 10 per cent share in an ongoing expansion, even though BP Plc is the lead operator.