The Senate easily voted Wednesday to advance a bipartisan agreement to slap new financial penalties on Russia and let Congress weigh in before President Trump can lift sanctions.
Senators voted 97-2 to attach the deal to an Iran sanctions bill currently being debated on the Senate floor. Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah) were the only senators to vote against including new Russia penalties in the legislation.
The Senate is expected to pass the Iran and Russia sanctions bill as soon as this week. Absent an agreement, the Senate will take another procedural vote on the legislation on Thursday morning.
The vote comes after top Republicans held off for months from backing tougher financial penalties in a bid to give the Trump administration space to try to improve the U.S.-Russia relationship, which soured under the Obama administration.
But top senators have signaled that talks with Russia over Syria, where Moscow supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, were moving too slowly to warrant holding off on new penalties.
“We must take our own side in this fight. Not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans. It’s time to respond to Russia’s attack on American democracy with strength, with resolve, with common purpose, and with action,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
The vote comes amid multiple investigations into Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and questions about the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Moscow.Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the chairman of the Banking Committee, praised the agreement as a “strong bipartisan measure” that will “result in some very powerful and new sanctions” against Russia.
The Russia deal would impose new sanctions, including on any individuals tied to “malicious cyber activity,” supplying weapons to Assad’s government or individuals tied to Russia’s intelligence and defense sectors.
It would also give Congress 30 days — or 60 days around the August recess — to review and potentially block Trump from lifting or relaxing Russia sanctions; codify the sanctions on Russia imposed by executive order by the Obama administration, and allow the Trump administration to impose new sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy.
Senators in both parties pointed to the agreement, and the broader Iran bill, as an example of bipartisanship in a Senate that has been locked in partisan fights for most of the year.
“I think it sets a good example of how the Senate can still work together to tackle complex and difficult issues,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said ahead of the vote.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also urged support for the deal ahead of the vote, arguing it’s as “bipartisan as it gets.”
“Leader [Mitch] McConnell [R-Ky.] and I worked extremely well together on this issue,” he said.
The votes comes after a swath of lawmakers — including Schumer, McConnell, Crapo, McCain, top members on the Senate Banking and Foreign Relations committees and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) — were locked in negotiations for roughly a week trying to hash out an agreement.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had been expected to mark up Russia legislation this month, but Corker and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) pointed to the Iran bill as a faster way to get Russia sanctions through the upper chamber.
The Trump administration’s warmer tone toward Moscow has sparked bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are largely skeptical of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who was involved in the negotiations, said the amendment would send a message to an administration that “has been all over the diplomatic map.”
Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council, said last month that the administration wouldn’t weaken Russia sanctions, adding that, “If anything, we could probably look to get tougher.”
Cohn’s comments were a clarification of earlier remarks in which he said the president didn’t have a position on Russia sanctions.
The administration has also sparked concern over reports that it could hand back two diplomatic compounds in the United States to Russia.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned on Wednesday that Congress should not pass any legislation that would undercut “constructive dialogue” with Russia.
“I would urge Congress to ensure any legislation allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions,” he said during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
Asked about Tillerson’s comments, Corker told The Hill that he thought the legislation didn’t prevent the administration from lifting sanctions if they are able to make progress with Russia.