Republicans block rebukes of Trump before Senate approves anti-Russia resolution
WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress blocked a series of measures put forward on Thursday by lawmakers — largely Democratic — desperate to isolate Republican leaders and publicly rebuke President Trump over his summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia this week.
In the Senate, Republicans objected to two nonbinding measures that would have put the body on record as being in support of intelligence agency conclusions that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, called on Trump to fully impose sanctions against Russia and pressed for oversight of the summit meeting, including the production of any notes taken by Americans.
“If ever there was a moment to think not of just your party but for the country, this is it,” Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, implored his colleagues before his bipartisan resolution was shot down.
After the White House press secretary said that Trump was not considering a Putin proposal to make a former US ambassador available to the Russian authorities for questioning, senators voted 98-0 in favor of a third nonbinding resolution expressing opposition to the Russian leader’s suggestion.
“With this vote, the Senate has sent a message that is free from all ambiguity: Americans will not be handed over to Putin on our watch,” said Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii. “Those who serve our nation do not answer to the Russian president, and they have the support of a thankful nation.”
In the House, Democrats sought to push many of the same points with different tactics, but saw no more success. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted down a request to subpoena testimony from the State Department interpreter who accompanied Trump into his private meeting with Putin. And on the House floor, Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to add hundreds of millions of dollars in grant funding for election security to a spending bill.
The flurry of votes came as lawmakers in both parties continue to cast about for appropriate responses to the fallout from the Finland meeting. Standing next to Putin on Monday, Trump signaled that he took the Russian president’s word over his own intelligence agencies that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 election. On Tuesday, Trump said he misspoke and that he did believe the intelligence agencies. And then on Wednesday, he further confused lawmakers when he seemed to say the Russians were no longer targeting American elections, then backtracked again.
Republicans, many of whom are outraged by Trump’s undercutting of the intelligence agencies, have indicated that they may prefer to address the situation with more sanctions, rather than potentially embarrassing oversight exercises or measures of censure. They announced steps in that direction on Thursday.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, said that he had asked the chairmen of two important committees to hold oversight hearings on Russian sanctions passed into law last year and begin discussions on the potential for new measures to supplement them.
It was far from clear if senators could reach an agreement on such a measure in time to deter malfeasance before November’s election. The most popular bipartisan sanctions proposal — written by Senators Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland — is thought to need rewriting to avoid unintended consequences, though it gained the support of four Democrats and four Republicans on Thursday.
But in publicizing his request in a statement, McConnell clearly intended to send a message that the Republican Congress takes the issue seriously and stands prepared to act.
The first two resolutions considered on the Senate floor were offered by unanimous consent. That parliamentary technique allows senators to avoid debate and a roll-call vote, but also empowers a single senator to object and kill the measure.
A bipartisan resolution to commend the Justice Department and reaffirm the Senate’s support for the intelligence community’s findings was blocked when Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, objected.
Cornyn’s move caught the sponsors of the resolution — Senators Flake and Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware — off guard. It came after Flake, an outspoken critic of the president, delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor accusing the president of “giving aid and comfort” to Putin.
“By choosing to reject object reality in Helsinki, the president let down the free world by giving aid and comfort to an enemy of democracy,” Flake said. “In so doing he dimmed the light on freedom ever so slightly in our own country.”
Cornyn said he favored considering new sanctions, “not sort of sense of the Senate resolutions that have no sting or no impact.” Among his other objections was that the measure was largely symbolic — a remark that brought protests from Flake when he and Coons greeted reporters afterward. The chagrined pair said they intended to introduce the measure again next week.
Flake said symbolism was precisely the point.
“This simply says, in a symbolic way, that we in the Senate don’t buy Vladimir Putin’s rejection or his denial of election interference,” Flake said. “We here in the Senate should stand and say we don’t believe it. We know the intelligence is right. We stand behind our intelligence community. We need to say that in the Senate. Yes, it’s symbolic, and symbolism is important.”