The White House plans to work with House Republicans on administration-friendly changes to the Senate’s overwhelmingly bipartisan bill that slaps new sanctions on Russia and curbs President Donald Trump’s power to ease penalties against Moscow, according to a senior administration official.
The White House is concerned that the legislation would tie its hands on U.S.-Russia relations, a sentiment publicly expressed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But Senate Democrats fear the White House may go overboard in preserving its power to talk to Russia and seek to defang the sanctions bill — which passed 98-2 on Thursday in one of the year’s most significant displays of bipartisanship.
It’s so far unclear how the House GOP would receive any White House entreaties to restore some of Trump’s power over sanctions that the Senate voted to claw back. House Republicans have started to review the Senate-passed bill and are likely to take it up in the coming weeks, according to an aide.
“I’m afraid that the level of awareness isn’t where it should be,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “And we’re going to come back and ask ‘How could this accommodation to Russia have happened?’ if this bill is watered down.”
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who helped negotiate the sanctions package as the Banking Committee’s top Democrat, told POLITICO he has heard the Trump administration is reaching out to House members “to slow it, block it.”
Tillerson earlier this week signaled his displeasure with any sanctions bill that would force the U.S. to “close the channels off” with Russia. While the White House has not taken an official position on the bill, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday tried to project toughness on Russia while appearing to express concerns about the Senate legislation.
“We believe the existing executive branch sanctions regime is the best tool for compelling Russia to fulfill its commitments,” Sanders told reporters Thursday, adding that the Senate deal "needs to go through the House, and we don't have a final product yet to weigh in."
Senate Democrats who pressed hard to win the strongest possible Russia sanctions deal remain alarmed over its fate in the House. Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he wouldn't be surprised if the administration aimed to dilute the Senate's bill, given that "the president has refused to acknowledge that we have a problem with the Russians involved in our elections.”
Asked if he feared that Trump's team could secure its preferred Russia changes with little public scrutiny, Durbin said only: "Yes."
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