A bipartisan group of senators wants President Donald Trump to get approval from Congress before easing U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Their legislation, dubbed the Russia Sanctions Review Act, is the latest salvo in an increasingly heated debate over Trump's desire to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The measure underscores concerns among many Democrats and a few vocal Republicans that the White House may lift or lessen the penalties without a firm commitment from Moscow to reverse its pattern of aggression around the world.
Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its incursions into eastern Ukraine have drawn widespread condemnation in Europe and the United States along with a raft of economic penalties. Relations with Moscow are also tense over Putin's backing of Syrian President Bashar Assad and allegations by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the U.S. elections to help Trump win.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Wednesday that the bill gives Congress a vehicle for turning disagreement into action.
"The president will have to engage us," Cardin said. "And we hope that in engaging us, there will be much more support for the president's policies and it won't just be done by tweet or by spur of the moment comment."
Bill co-sponsors Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have been two of the GOP's sharpest critics of Trump. McCain, speaking Tuesday in the Senate chamber, called Putin a "killer" and declared there is "no moral equivalence" between the United States and Russia. His remarks came after Trump appeared to draw parallels between the two countries during an interview with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, broadcast before the Super Bowl.
The president repeated his desire to improve relations with Putin. O'Reilly called the Russian president "a killer." Trump answered, "We've got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country's so innocent?"
Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary crime and terrorism subcommittee, is leading an investigation of Russia's efforts to influence America's 2016 elections.
"Russia has done nothing to be rewarded with sanctions relief," Graham said in a statement Wednesday. "To provide relief at this time would send the wrong signal to Russia and our allies who face Russian oppression."
Cardin said the Russia sanctions bill is styled after 2015 legislation pushed by Republicans and approved overwhelmingly in the Senate that gave Congress a vote on whether former President Barack 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, according to Cardin.
But Republicans may not be as enthusiastic about backing a bill that could be a seen as undermining Trump. Votes from more than two thirds of the Senate likely would be needed to override a veto of the bill. The legislation also would have to get through the GOP-led House.
"It's not an attack against President Trump," Cardin said of the bill, emphasizing the need for oversight. "This is basically to re-establish ourselves."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a former presidential rival of Trump's, also backs the bill.