WASHINGTON — With the CIA’s assessment that Russia intervened to help Donald Trump win the presidential election dominating the news, senators on both sides of the aisle have spared no kind words for Vladimir Putin, interrupting their Christmas vacation to call for an investigation into the hacking.
But they also didn’t spare much legislative effort over the last two and half months of Congress to take away from the president-elect the power to unilaterally ease US policy toward his Russian counterpart once in office.
In September, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a piece of legislation that would prevent the White House from removing economic sanctions placed on Russia for invading Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. But that bill was left to languish in Senate committee for months before members of Congress left town for the year on Saturday.
Because President Obama’s sanctions against certain individuals and businesses tied to Putin were done by executive order, they can be undone by the next president with a stroke of a pen. But the bill, called the Stability and Democracy for Ukraine Act, would take that power away. The Senate version of the legislation would have required that the sanctions remain in place until either Russia or Ukraine give up their claims on the contested Crimean peninsula, which Russia invaded in 2014.
Given the unlikelihood of either scenario, the sanctions would in effect be permanent.
“If we fail to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine, it will signal to Moscow and other nations that anyone can act contrary to international law and American interests without fear of repercussions,” Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, co-chair of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus and a Republican representative who co-sponsored the bill, told BuzzFeed News.
But the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to take up the legislation. With the end of the term last week, the process will have to start over in the new Congress and chances of passing the bill before Trump — whose incoming chief of staff would not commit the administration to keeping the sanctions — is sworn in have dwindled to nearly zero.
“We’ve pushed it. There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the Senate,” Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, lead author of the legislation, told BuzzFeed News. “I’m concerned about our new president because he says nice things about Putin and seems to gloss over some of the thuggery of what Putin is doing.”
One Democratic colleague in the Senate, Senator Bob Menendez, blamed Republicans for dragging their feet on the sanctions bill.
“It is unnerving that some of my Republican colleagues would consider walking away from longstanding, responsible policies to counter Russian aggression,” Menendez told BuzzFeed News in a statement.
Menendez, who introduced the bill in the Senate, said he invited Republican colleagues to co-sponsor a Senate version of the bill, but none signed on.
Since September, the bill has languished in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by chairman Bob Corker, who was being considered for the job of secretary of state before being passed over for Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson.
Neither the offices of Corker or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would say whether or not the senators support the bill. But an aide for Corker told BuzzFeed News that a “lack of consensus between the administration and members on both sides of the aisle has prevented further consideration of additional measures related to Ukraine.”
Engel said the White House doesn’t support the bill because it does not want to further antagonize Russia. “I know the administration doesn’t support it. The attitude is that if we aid Ukraine, then Russia will escalate,” Engel said. “But I disagree with that.”
The White House declined to comment, saying it usually avoids doing so on pending legislation.
Without bipartisan support, the bill, which Menendez introduced in the Senate on the last day of Congress with three other Democratic co-sponsors, had little chance of passing before the end of the year.
At least two Senate Republicans, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, support its passage, however.
“I’m for it. I’m all for it,” McCain told BuzzFeed News.
Before the House vote in September, BuzzFeed News reported that business interests, including Exxon Mobil, pushed to have sanctions against Russia related to the energy and banking sectors removed from the list of those to be made permanent.
Before Russia invaded Crimea, Exxon was in the throes of executing one of the biggest oil deals in its history. But the $500 billion agreement between Exxon and Rosneft, a state-owned Russian oil company, to pump oil in the Russian Arctic was put on hold due to the sanctions.
Tillerson, Trump’s choice of secretary of state, has personally spoken out against the measures to constrain Russia.
“We do not support sanctions, generally,” Tillerson told told shareholders in 2014. “We don’t find them to be effective unless they are very well-implemented comprehensively — and that’s a very hard thing to do.”