President Trump is facing a stark foreign policy choice: Sign off on punishing new sanctions against Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election or veto a rare bipartisan piece of legislation that would hurt his push for better relations with Russia.
Over the weekend, Congress reached an agreement on a bill to slap Russia, Iran, and North Korea with new sanctions while removing President Trump’s ability to alter them without Congressional approval. The House is set to vote on the bill Tuesday.
The legislation requires the executive branch to get a resolution of approval for any changes to sanctions — a significant constriction on the president’s powers by his own party in Congress.
The White House has expressed reservations about that aspect of the bill after the Senate passed similar legislation last month. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress that the White House wanted the “flexibility” to deal with Russia, and White House legislative director Marc Short expressed opposition to the “unusual precedent of delegating foreign policy to 535 members of Congress.”
There were also concerns among Republicans and in the oil and gas industry over a rule in the Senate bill that would bar American companies and individuals from working with Russian-sanctioned companies and individuals on big oil and gas projects.
The compromise for the two parties and the two chambers is to combine the Russian, Iranian, and North Korean sanctions into one bill, with moderate technical changes.
The bill would set into law Russian sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for Russia’s cyber-attack on the Democratic Party and interference in the election, including the end of Russia’s access to two diplomatic compounds in the U.S. — one of which they are said to have used for espionage. It would also add penalties for Russian interference in Ukraine, Syria and the 2016 election hack.
The Trump administration would also be barred from making any changes to those sanctions or any others without Congressional approval. They can apply for waivers, including if Russia makes progress on implementing the peace deal in Ukraine known as the Minsk agreement.
American businesses could also work with Russian entities on certain oil and gas projects outside of Russia as long as they don’t involve a sanctioned Russian individual or company owning a 33 percent stake or more.
While the bill would require Congressional approval on any changes, it does also give the President the ability to ask Congress to lift some of them if the White House can certify that certain conditions have been met — like Russian progress on the Minsk agreement or “significant” Russian efforts to “reduce the number and intensity of [its] cyber intrusions.” Like other sanctions, it also defers to the administration to designate new individuals and entities that are violating them and should be added.
The bill also includes new sanctions against Iran for its ballistic missile program and human rights violations, as well as on North Korea targeting its shipping industry and its use of forced labor abroad — two major sources of income for its missile and nuclear programs. It also requires the administration to report to Congress on the ties between Iran and North Korea and whether North Korea should be re-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism within 90 days.
The resolution comes weeks after the Senate overwhelmingly passed a similar bill that codified existing sanctions against Russia and introduced some new ones against it and Iran in a 98-2 vote.
That legislation got stuck in the House, with lawmakers squabbling over technical details and pointing fingers between the two parties. The House had also voted nearly unanimously in May for North Korea sanctions, and Republican leadership wanted the Senate to take up that package.
But elsewhere, there was bipartisan praise for an agreement that strongly rebukes Trump over his praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin, his calls for the U.S. and Russia to work together and his skepticism of the U.S. intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in the election.
“North Korea, Iran, and Russia have in different ways all threatened their neighbors and actively sought to undermine American interests,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce, R-California, said in a joint statement, noting that the bill will “now exclusively focus on these nations and hold them accountable for their dangerous actions.”
“A nearly united Congress is poised to send President Putin a clear message on behalf of the American people and our allies, and we need President Trump to help us deliver that message,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It’s unclear if Trump will do that, with the White House sending mixed signals on its view of the legislation.
After initially telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on “This Week” that the President supports the bill, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Monday that Trump “wants to make sure we get the best deal for the American people … He’s gonna study that legislation and see what the final product looks like.”
But given the overwhelming majorities that approved the sanctions in Congress and the intense scrutiny over Trump’s ties to Russia, the president could face a public backlash if he vetoes the final bill — and doing so could lead to an embarrassing override by Congress.
ABC News’s Mariam Khan and Ben Siegel contributed to this report.