President-elect Donald Trump has made it clear that he wants to build closer ties with Russia. But it's been difficult to gauge how much his own party, traditionally distrustful of and hostile toward Moscow, is on board with the pivot.
The fact that five Republican senators are now backing a new bill — led by a Democrat — to slap additional sanctions on Russia is a sign that at least some of them aren't quite ready for a friendly new relationship with the Kremlin just yet.
On Tuesday, a group of at least 10 senators, led by Ben Cardin (D-MA), are expected to introduce legislation to impose a variety of substantial penalties on Russian individuals and organizations, as well as outside actors who engage with them. It's a bipartisan group, split equally between the two parties, and includes influential Republican senators and Russia hawks John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio.
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The bill would pass into law many of the sanctions that President Obama has imposed on Moscow using executive orders, including the recent ones related to the allegation that Russia used hacking to interfere with US elections and older ones tied to Russia's territorial expansion into Ukraine. We don't have all the details yet, but among other things, the bill would:
- Impose sanctions against Russian defense and intelligence agencies, including some top intelligence officials individually
- Penalize companies around the world for doing business with those agencies
- Require sanctions on investments of $20 million or more in Russia's oil and gas sector development
- Give $25 million to the Department of Homeland Security to inform the public about cybersecurity threats and $100 million to the State Department for democracy promotion–related endeavors including combating "fake news"
The objectives of the bill are directly at odds with Trump's widely anticipated maneuvers on Russia upon entering the White House. Experts believe one of Trump's first moves to improve US-Russian relations may be to lift sanctions Obama has imposed on Russia by executive order. Trump and his surrogates have also hinted that he'd consider doing this, and on Monday his top aide, Kellyanne Conway, referred to Obama's hacking-related sanctions as a "disproportionate response."
Trump could easily do that simply by issuing new executive orders overturning the old ones — without getting approval from Congress. But if this new bill were to pass, those sanctions would no longer merely be tied to executive orders. They'd be US law, which means Trump couldn't get rid of them on his own.
It's not clear what kind of support the bill will ultimately get in the wider Senate, and a number of Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are already expressing reservations about it.
"Everybody needs to stop, catch their breath and see where this whole thing's going to go before we make specific plans," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee member James Risch (R-ID), according to the Washington Post. "We're in a state of flux right now, and that's not a good time to be acting on something as serious as that."
In order to pass, the bill would need bipartisan backing, in the form of either total solidarity among Democrats with a sizable chunk of Republicans or widespread support from both parties. In order to override a veto from Trump, it would need two-thirds support in both chambers of Congress.
Such bipartisan cooperation may seem unlikely in today's highly polarized political environment, but it's happened before. In 2012, a time of extreme partisan rancor, a bill that slapped sanctions on Russia over its human rights record passed by huge margins: 92 to 4 in the Senate and 365 to 43 in the House. Obama opposed the bill at the time because at the time he was trying to collaborate with Russia on issues like the Iran deal, but he had no choice but to sign it given the overwhelming congressional support.
That being said, pro-Russia sentiment among Republican voters is on the rise. If that trend continues, it could temper the party's traditionally belligerent posture toward Moscow and erode much of the support the bill would've received just a year ago.
It's impossible to predict the kind of support this bill will get. But the fact that five Republicans are already behind it provides a glimpse into the kind of tensions that Trump is likely to encounter with his own party over Russia in the future.