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Senate attempting to add Russia sanctions to Iran bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flanked by Senator John Barrasso (left) and Majority Whip John Cornyn spoke at the Capitol.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flanked by Senator John Barrasso (left) and Majority Whip John Cornyn spoke at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

WASHINGTON — A group of leading senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, have been negotiating a way to pass more stringent sanctions against Russia in the coming week, by piggybacking on an upcoming a measure cracking down on ballistic missile tests in Iran.

The talks, which according to senior Senate aides involve the heads of at least the Banking and Senate Foreign Relations committees, plus Senate leaders and a handful of Congress’ most outspoken Russia critics, are geared toward attaching Russia sanctions by amendment to a popular Iran sanctions bill the Senate was expected to take up Wednesday — just as intelligence and Justice Department officials head to Capitol Hill to testify about alleged Russian meddling in the presidential election. Former FBI director James B. Comey is expected to testify Thursday.

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The exact substance of the Russia sanctions senators hope to attach to the Iran bill is not yet clear, but according to senior Senate aides, talks have focused on the substance offered by a set of bills already on offer, addressing everything from Russia’s aggressive activities in Ukraine and Syria to allegations that Russian hackers tried to swing an American election.

One of those bills is a recent measure from the Banking Committee chairman, Senator Mike Crapo, Republican of Idaho, and ranking member Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, to codify in law existing sanctions against Russia that former president Barack Obama began imposing in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine in 2014. Their bill adds to those existing sanctions new sectoral measures against Russia’s mining, metals and railways; individual sanctions against Russian hackers and corruption; and tools to better track illicit Russian financing, as well as oligarchs’ holdings in the United States.

Another bill, proposed this year by a bipartisan group of senators, would codify existing sanctions while stiffening restrictions on the Russian defense, intelligence and energy sectors, as well as anyone providing material support to people posing a cyberthreat. A third bill would give Congress the chance to veto any presidential decision to ease up on sanctions against Russia.

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All chief authors of those bills have been involved in the various discussions with Senate leaders to insert Russia sanctions into the Iran bill, according to various aides.

Which elements of those Russia sanctions bills make the cut to be included as a potential amendment to the Iran sanctions legislation has yet to be determined.