WASHINGTON ― In a rare showing of bipartisanship, 10 senators from both sides of the aisle introduced legislation Tuesday to step up sanctions against Russia.
Lawmakers, angered by Moscow’s alleged interference in the U.S. election process, have been discussing retaliatory action for weeks. But the legislation on sanctions unveiled Tuesday goes beyond responding to Russian cyber-activity. It also mandates new measures related to Russia’s 2014 military incursion into Ukraine and its ongoing support of President Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. The bill would codify some of the sanctions put in place by outgoing President Barack Obama as well as impose new punitive measures.
Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican John McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, led the effort. They are joined by four Democrats (Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois) and four Republicans (Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rob Portman of Ohio).
“We have to respond to Vladimir Putin’s behavior, and if we don’t, it will continue unchecked,” McCain said at a press conference on Capitol Hill. “We must act and we can act and we will act, in my view, in a bipartisan fashion.”
“None of us know the position of the president-elect, but we should know, and we can know, the position of the Congress of the United States,” he continued.
“The bottom line here is to send a clear message not only to Russia but to anyone else who wants to go down this road ― to do so at their own peril,” Graham added.
With five Republicans on board, the bill has a good chance of being passed in the Senate, setting lawmakers up for an early showdown between the GOP and President-elect Donald Trump.
Top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway suggested Monday that the incoming commander in chief could roll back sanctions against Russia or decline to enforce new measures. In response to accusations of Russia’s election-related hacking, Obama imposed sanctions last month on Moscow’s intelligence services and expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. Those actions, Conway said, were “disproportionate” and “punitive.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not retaliated, a sign that he anticipates smoother relations with the incoming Trump administration.
Trump, who favors closer ties with Moscow, dismissed initial reports blaming Moscow for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers and later disseminating embarrassing emails. After being briefed Friday by intelligence officials ― who believe that Moscow carried out the hacking campaign with the goal of electing Trump ― the president-elect said in a statement that Russia was one of several entities that could have been responsible for the cyberattack. Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said on Sunday that his boss accepts the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia is to blame ― a belief that Trump has not yet expressed himself.
As is the case with most congressionally mandated sanctions, the new measures targeting Russia include a national security waiver that allows the president to stall their implementation.
If passed and implemented, the bill would lock in the executive order Obama used last month to apply sanctions against Russian intelligence services in response to their suspected role in election-related hacking. It would also impose a visa ban and asset freeze on individuals involved in cyberattacks against “public or private infrastructure and democratic institutions” and would sanction transactions with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors.
With respect to Ukraine, the bill would turn into law the four executive orders used by the Obama administration to sanction Russia for its military intervention in its neighboring country. Individuals responsible for human rights abuses in territory occupied or controlled by Russia are subject to visa bans and asset freezes under the bill. It would also limit investments in Russia’s petroleum and natural gas sector, energy pipeline development and civil nuclear projects ― a move the bill’s authors say is a response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine as well as in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.
The bill would authorize $25 million to the Department of Homeland Security to educate the public on the threat of cybersecurity and teach better online practices. It would provide an additional $100 million to the State Department to promote democracy, independent media and “programs to counter ‘fake news.’”
This story has been updated with statements from John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.