President Barack Obama’s eleventh-hour Russia sanctions present a big test for congressional Republicans, who are torn between decades-old GOP principles and their new standard-bearer’s unorthodox embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Democrats are already seeking to exploit this rift, drafting legislation designed to make it harder for President-elect Donald Trump to unilaterally roll back Obama’s new sanctions.
The goal is to force Republicans into a tough spot in which they can either soften their long-standing animosity toward Russia, opening themselves to charges of hypocrisy — or defy Trump, who on Wednesday dismissed efforts to punish Russia by saying “we ought to get on with our lives.”
“Now is not the ‘time to get on with our lives,’” Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “The executive branch has acted, but it is imperative the legislative branch now pick up the ball and move it forward. Congressional sanctions can complement and strengthen these new executive sanctions.”
The Maryland senator vowed to introduce bills next month to create an independent commission to investigate Russian meddling in the election and hit the country with “comprehensive enhanced sanctions.” Other Democrats are also pushing legislation to codify the Obama-era sanctions.
A Senate Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it will be telling whether Republicans get on board with such measures. “It remains to be seen whether these guys are all talk and no action,” said the aide, who noted that “this is the Republican Party that in 2012 called Russia the No. 1 geopolitical foe for the United States in the world.”
Democrats will likely have support in these efforts from two of the Senate’s leading GOP defense hawks, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They issued a joint statement Thursday saying they “intend to lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions on Russia.”
McCain and Graham, though, have repeatedly defied Trump on the Russia issue, pushing for expanded investigations into Russia’s election interference. It remains to be seen where other Republicans will come down on the sanctions issue.
After the sanctions announcement on Thursday, Trump said he would meet next week with intelligence officials for a briefing on Russian cyberattacks.
“It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” he said in a statement. “Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
Following Obama’s rollout of the new sanctions, statements poured in from Democrats offering support, many saying they wanted more done to punish a country that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded tried to tilt the presidential election in Trump’s favor.
There were fewer statements from Republicans, who tempered their support for the new sanctions with criticisms of Obama’s overall approach to dealing with Russia.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called the new sanctions “overdue,” but a spokesman declined to comment when asked whether the Wisconsin Republican would support legislation making it harder for Trump to roll them back.
“While today’s action by the administration is overdue, it is an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia,” Ryan said in a statement. “And it serves as a prime example of this administration’s ineffective foreign policy that has left America weaker in the eyes of the world.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the sanctions “a good initial step, however late in coming.”
“As the next Congress reviews Russian actions against networks associated with the U.S. election,” McConnell said, “we must also work to ensure that any attack against the United States is met with an overwhelming response.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), meanwhile, said the sanctions are “too little, too late.”
“These meager steps will not decisively change Putin’s calculation that his aggressions are worth the risk,” Sasse said. “We cannot afford to be in the same place a year from now — our adversaries must be deterred by knowing that cyber attacks will be met with swift and decisive responses.”
Obama’s new sanctions are a follow-up to those his administration imposed in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Thursday’s sanctions target Russian security and intelligence assets, including booting 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the United States. Like the earlier sanctions, these were put in place through executive actions that Trump could potentially undo with the stroke of a pen.
“I hope the incoming Trump administration, which has been far too close to Russia throughout the campaign and transition, won’t think for one second about weakening these new sanctions or our existing regime,” said incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. “We need to punch back against Russia, and punch back hard.”
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