WASHINGTON: The Republican-led Senate voted decisively to punish Moscow for interfering in the 2016 election by approving a wide-ranging sanctions package that targets key sectors of Russia's economy and individuals who carried out cyber attacks.
Senators on Wednesday passed the bipartisan sanctions legislation 97-2, underscoring broad support among Republicans and Democrats for rebuking Russia after U.S. intelligence agencies determined Moscow had deliberately interfered in the presidential campaign. Lawmakers who backed the measure also cited Russia's aggression in Syria and Ukraine.
Despite Russia's bellicosity, there's been no forceful response from President Donald Trump. The president has instead sought to improve relations with Moscow and rejected the implication that Russian hacking of Democratic emails tipped the election his way.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's "brazen attack on our democracy is a flagrant demonstration of his disdain and disrespect for our nation," Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said ahead of the vote.
"But in the last eight months, what price has Russia paid for attacking American democracy?" said McCain, who also faulted Congress for not moving more quickly.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered tepid support for the sanctions measure, telling the House Foreign Affairs Committee he agreed "with the sentiment" among lawmakers that Russia must be held accountable for its meddling in the election.
But Tillerson urged Congress to make the sanctions legislation doesn't tie the president's hands and shut down promising avenues of communication between the two former Cold War foes. He asked lawmakers "to ensure any legislation allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation."
If the Trump administration decides to oppose the new sanctions, they could be in a bind. The sanctions measure has been attached to a bill imposing penalties on Iran that the Senate is currently debating and which also has strong bipartisan support. So the White House would have to reject stricter punishments against Iran, which it favors, in order to derail the parts of the legislation it may object to.
Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., voted against the Russia sanctions package. Once the Iran bill passes the Senate, the legislation moves to the House for action.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the top Democrat on the Banking Committee, said Trump's failure to act could embolden Russia and lead to interference in future U.S. elections. Brown also said the veto-proof vote on the sanctions package should send a strong signal to the White House.
"If the president doesn't sign a bill that passes the Senate with 90 votes, the president will learn yet another lesson about what the public wants," Brown said.
The leaders of the Senate Banking and Foreign Relations committees announced late Monday that they'd reached an agreement on the sanctions package after intensive negotiations.
The discussions gathered steam late last month after Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, joined the effort to push the legislation forward. Corker said he'd agreed to give Tillerson a "short window of opportunity" to reverse the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia. But Corker said his patience ran out after he reviewed classified intelligence that showed "no difference whatsoever" in Russia's behavior, especially in Syria.
The deal was forged amid the firestorm over investigations into Moscow's possible collusion with members of Trump's campaign. House and Senate committees are investigating Russia's meddling and potential links to the Trump campaign. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a separate probe.
The measure calls for strengthening current sanctions and imposing new ones on a broad range of people, including Russians engaged in corruption, individuals in human rights abuses and anyone supplying weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Broad new sanctions would be imposed on Russia's mining, metals, shipping and railways sectors.
The measure would punish individuals who conduct what the senators described as "conducting malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government." Also covered by the sanctions are people doing business with Russian intelligence and defense agencies.
The package also would require a congressional review if a president attempts to ease or end current penalties. The review mechanism was styled after 2015 legislation pushed by Republicans and approved overwhelmingly in the Senate that gave Congress a vote on whether Obama could lift sanctions against Iran. That measure reflected Republican complaints that Obama had overstepped the power of the presidency and needed to be checked by Congress.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said the Senate has finally confronted Russia.
"This bipartisan amendment is the sanctions regime that the Kremlin deserves for its actions," Shaheen said.