WASHINGTON — The latest bombshell revelations in President Trump’s ongoing Russia scandal are ramping up pressure on House Republicans to vote on a Russian sanctions package aimed at blocking the White House from unilaterally softening penalties against the country.
The bipartisan bill, which passed the Senate 98-2 a month ago, has been bogged down by partisan squabbling in the House. But the revelation of e-mails that President Trump’s eldest son knowingly, and enthusiastically, met with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has added urgency to the issue and directed a spotlight on House Speaker Paul Ryan’s explanations for what is taking so long.
While Democrats believe Republicans are dragging their feet at the request of the White House, Ryan said it is simply stalled because of procedural issues that need to be cleared up.
“I’m a Russia hawk. I believe in strong, bold Russian sanctions. We want to move this Russian sanctions bill,” he told reporters Wednesday morning when asked about the bill. “We want to get this done and get this fixed and get this moving as quickly as possible.”
The sanctions bill would impose new financial sanctions on Russia and codify those that then-President Obama slapped on the country via executive order in response to its hacking activity during the 2016 presidential election. Most significantly, the bill would empower Congress to block steps by the Trump administration to soften or lift those penalties.
The White House has been lobbying House GOP leaders to weaken the bill, though House Republicans say they are not considering those changes.
Should the bill become law it would be a defeat for President Trump, interpreted as a vote of no confidence by congressional Republicans when it comes to dealing with Russia. Many observers believe Trump would have no choice but to sign the bill if it lands on his desk, given the cloud surrounding his administration. Even if he did veto it, the Senate vote suggests Congress could override it.
President Trump defended himself against charges he’s seeking to rollback sanctions on Russia. “We have very heavy sanctions on Russia right now. I would not and have never even thought about taking them off,” he said during an interview with press traveling in France with him. “I would never take the sanctions off until something is worked out to our satisfaction and everybody’s satisfaction in Syria and in Ukraine.”
Republican hawks in the Senate expressed confidence Ryan would get the bill passed soon, but there have been signs of frustration in recent days.
“The last thing we want to do is send a mixed message about how we feel about Russia,” South Carolina GOP Senator Lindsey Graham said.
‘‘This is all doing nothing but helping Russia,’’ Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the Associated Press. ‘‘Every day that goes by around here, mischief can happen.’’
Regardless of the merits of each side’s position in the House procedural dispute, the optics right now are bad for Ryan —
“The Republican leadership is certainly dragging its feet,’’ said California Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, one of several involved in investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. “This could come up in an instant if there was a will to do it. I can only imagine they’re being pressured from the White House, but that pressure can’t get in the way of doing the right thing for the country and we ought to take this up without any further delay.”
Russia experts agree that further delay of the bill will be viewed positively by the Kremlin, especially following the friendly meeting Trump had with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.
“The Russian intelligence services will simply be further emboldened if they see that this administration and Congress are unwilling to really meaningfully sanction such behavior. Why stop?” said Kathryn Stoner, an international relations professor focused on Russian domestic and international politics at Stanford University.
“For House Republicans wanting distance from the Russia mess . . . I have an idea: pass the new sanctions law,” tweeted Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
The procedural fights began as soon as the Senate sent the bill to the House and escalated when House GOP leaders persuaded the Senate to agree to changes to address a constitutional concern raised by the House. Those modifications included a tweak that Democrats complain would weaken Congress’s ability to block Trump from removing sanctions. Specifically, the changed language would only allow the House speaker — a Republican — to trigger a vote to block Trump from rolling back sanctions. In other words, no Democrat in the House could do so.
By contrast, the Senate bill would allow any individual senator, of either party, to call for such a vote in that chamber.
On Wednesday, House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland introduced the original Senate bill as a House measure, a move designed to intensify the pressure on Ryan. The new bill would preserve Democrats ability to force a vote as well as solve the constitutional problem that the House GOP said needed fixing.
“I don’t believe that having the president’s party in a position to protect [Trump] from any oversight is good policy for our country and, in fact, could be dangerous to our country,” Hoyer told reporters.McGrane can be reached at email@example.com.