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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

Congress struggles with countering Putin after Trump summit

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a rare warning that Russia “better quit messing around” in US elections

Speaker Paul Ryan, left, joined Mitch McConnell in saying that Mr Putin would not be welcome on Capitol Hill. Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Speaker Paul Ryan, left, joined Mitch McConnell in saying that Mr Putin would not be welcome on Capitol Hill. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Congress is producing an unusual outpouring of bills, resolutions and new sanctions proposals to push back at president Donald Trump’s approach to Vladimir Putin, to shore up relations with Nato allies and prevent Russian interference in the midterm elections.

But it is uncertain whether their efforts will yield results. Politicians are struggling with internal party divisions as well as their own onslaught of proposals as they try to move beyond a symbolic rebuke of Mr Trump’s interactions with the Russian president and exert influence both at home and abroad. And while many Democrats are eager for quick votes, some Republicans prefer none at all.

As Mr Trump and Mr Putin weigh another face-to-face meeting, politicians in both parties — particularly in the Senate — appear motivated to act.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a rare warning that Russia “better quit messing around” in United States elections as he tasked two Senate committees to start working on sanctions-related legislation and other measures to deter Russia.

In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan joined Mr McConnell in saying that Mr Putin would not be welcome on Capitol Hill, although he did not push forward any Russia-related legislation before his chamber recessed for August.

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Still, the past few weeks have been one of the rare moments in the Trump era that Republicans and Democrats have jointly asserted the role of Congress as a counterweight to the administration.

“You look at the action of Congress since the summit in Helsinki, you find Democrats and Republicans both standing up and saying 'no',” said Senator Ben Cardin, in an interview on C-SPAN with The Associated Press and The Washington Post.

For starters, there’s a bipartisan push from Senator John McCain, Senator Tim Kaine and others to “explicitly prohibit” the president from withdrawing from Nato without Senate approval.

Other senators are debating action to prevent meddling in the midterm election. Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Amy Klobuchar call the protection of the election system a “national security priority”.

Mr Graham said it’s “extremely important that Congress recognise the threat to our electoral system coming from Russia and act in a decisive way.”

In addition, legislation from Mr McCain and Mr Cardin would require approval from Congress before Mr Trump could reverse sanctions issued under the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which bans visas for travel and freezes assets of key Russians involved in alleged human rights abuses.

Russia’s displeasure at the 2012 Magnitsky Act played into what Mr Trump initially called an “incredible offer” from Mr Putin at the summit to allow US questioning of Russians indicted by the Justice Department for hacking Democratic emails. In return, Mr Putin requested the ability to investigate Americans involved in the Magnitsky Act.

Mr McCain called it a “perverse proposal” and Mr Trump has since backed away from it.

With about 100 days before the midterm elections, some say Congress is not acting fast enough.

One bill that has been given a go-ahead nod from Mr McConnell is legislation from Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Chris Van Hollen that attempts to warn Mr Putin off more election interference by setting up tough new sanctions on Russia if it does try to intervene.

The measure is slowly making its way through the Senate Banking Committee, but some politicians in the House and Senate have raised concerns that it casts too wide a net and could cause problems for allied nations that do business with Russia.

Mr Rubio says he’s willing to adjust the legislation to meet concerns, but says the goal is for Russia to understand there will be a price to pay for further election interference. He adds the legislation was introduced months before the Helsinki summit and isn’t intended to embarrass or attack the president.

“I’m deeply concerned about their ability to interfere in our politics,” Mr Rubio said in an interview. “We want them to know what the price is going to be to make that choice.”