Senators coalesce around a Russia sanctions bill but hurdles remain

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are forging ahead with plans to push back on the fallout from President Donald Trump’s comments at a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as lawmakers once again Wednesday are feeling the whiplash of the President’s inconsistent comments on Russia.

“There’s a lot of discussion post the Helsinki press conference that we are all engaged in, so we are figuring it out,” said Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who demanded a more forceful response from Trump.

“I wanted him to say that despite what the intelligence community in Russia or what Putin might be saying or what is said here amongst our intelligence community is ‘No more, knock it off, stay away, get out’ and demand that Russia stay away when it comes to our elections, and I didn’t hear that and I didn’t hear that in his walk back so I’m still waiting,” Murkowski said.

While plans are still coalescing, senators were once again in the uncertain position of having to respond to new Trump comments. Just a day after Trump attempted to walk back his remarks from Monday, the President appeared to again inject confusion when he answered “no” after a reporter asked if Russians were still a threat to the US. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who said she spoke with Trump about his answer, said the President wasn’t responding “no” to the question, but was declining to answer it when he said “no.”

“The President said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and said no to answering questions. The President and his administration are working very hard to make sure Russia is unable to (meddle) in our elections,” Sanders said.

In the meantime, lawmakers were left trying to interpret what Trump said. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said he was happy to hear that Sanders had clarified Trump’s comment.

“Well, that’s good to hear ’cause if it was no to the idea that Russia was interfering that would have been very problematic, dumbfounding,” Graham said. “I am very relieved.”

“When I heard that he said no it really bothered me ’cause that’s a disconnect between the intel,” Graham said.

In recent days, dozens of Republican lawmakers have denounced Russia and backed the US intelligence community, making clear there is no daylight between themselves and the findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 US elections and still poses a risk to upcoming elections.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, has worked alongside Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen to craft legislation that would automatically subject Russia — or any other country — to sanctions if they interfered in upcoming elections. The senators introduced the legislation back in January, but it’s gotten new traction this week following the Helsinki summit.

“I feel really good the language we have could pass. We just have to find a way to get it going,” said Rubio, who predicted the measure could get a veto-proof 85 votes in the Senate. “Because no matter what’s going on with all the noise, the debate, the stuff on the news every day, we’re going to have an election very soon and we need to act quickly to put in place penalties to discourage another attack.”

But sanctions legislation can be notoriously complicated to write, and the broad scope of the measure — which would snap stiff sanctions on Russia’s banking and energy sectors if the director of national intelligence found evidence of interference in the 2018 election — could have spillover effects that would hit US businesses.

“That’s part of the discussion we’re having,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber. “Obviously, we would need to make it targeted so we wouldn’t have ancillary damage to US companies or American interests. It is not exactly easy to craft that kind of legislation, but I think there seems to be some bipartisan support for sending that message and letting Mr. Putin know that if he keeps this up there will be consequences.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already canceled much of the annual August recess, citing the legislative and nominations agenda facing Senate Republicans. One GOP aide called any such legislation “a potential magnet” for amendments that could create problems for the bill given its subject matter.

Rubio said he wants to find compromise language that could pass quickly on the floor because he is concerned the legislation could get bogged down in the Banking Committee or in a lengthy floor debate.

“If the bill is going to get to the floor and then becomes a vehicle for all kinds of amendments that are unrelated to the core of the bill, than it’s going to eat up all this floor time and it’s going to be difficult for us to get a vote on it,” Rubio said.

Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, also released a resolution with Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, that would assert support for the intelligence community and endorse its findings that Russia intervened in the US elections.

“This body must reaffirm that we stand with the men and women of the Department of Justice, who have brought these 12 indictments against individuals from the Russian Federation who interfered with our elections,” Flake said in a statement. “I hope the President will take the word of our intelligence agencies rather than the empty words of a dictator.”