The Senate has approved a new package of sanctions against Russia in retaliation for the Kremlin's meddling in the 2016 presidential election and for its continued support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The legislation would also prohibit President Donald Trump from relaxing the proposed sanctions.
On June 15, the Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to impose sanctions on the Iranian government's ballistic missile program by a vote of 98 to 2. An amendment to impose new sanctions against Russia had been inserted into the bill only a day beforehand.
On June 14, the Senate approved the Russian sanction amendment by a vote of 97 to 2. Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky were the only dissenters, while Democrat Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland was not present during the vote.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, praised the amendment as a necessary step to retaliate against the Kremlin's cyber meddling during the 2016 election.
"The United States needs to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin and any other aggressor that we will not tolerate attacks on our democracy," McCain said. "There's no greater threat to our freedoms than attacks on our ability to choose our own leaders free from foreign interference."
The Senate Minority Leader, Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, asserted that Congress would have to take the lead against the Putin government because the Trump administration "has been too eager -- far too eager, in my mind -- to put sanctions relief on the table."
The amendment would sanction any individuals found to be committing cyber espionage on behalf of Russian intelligence or providing arms to the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War. The package was also crafted to punish the Russian economy, authorizing sanctions against any private firm that invests in the Russian energy sector.
That provision has angered German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, who released a statement asserting that the legislation would hobble Europe's access to gas, particularly a planned pipeline from Moscow to Germany.
"Europe's energy supply is a matter for Europe, not the United States of America," Gabriel and Kern said, according to the Financial Times.
The amendment would also give Congress the authority to block any White House attempt to relax sanctions against Russia. Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma asserted that the provision was not a slight against Trump, but rather an effort to reaffirm Congress' discretion to impose sanctions.
"This is not a hostile amendment… Whether it is a Republican or Democrat president is irrelevant in this issue," Lankford said, according to The Hill. "If Congress creates sanctions, Congress should release the authority to make decisions on and off."
The Trump administration has signaled disapproval of the Russian sanctions amendment, citing concerns that it could hobble attempts to establish warmer relations between the two countries.
On June 13, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that blocking Trump from offering sanctions relief would be a mistake.
"I would urge Congress to ensure any legislation allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions to meet the needs of what is always an evolving diplomatic situation," Tillerson said.
The sanctions bill would need to clear the House before arriving on Trump's desk. While the legislation enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate, Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio warned that the Trump administration could pressure House Republicans to soften the Russia amendment.
"I know that some people in the White House are pushing back," Brown said on Capitol Hill, according to Politico. "People in the White House, we hear, are making calls in the House to try to stop it, slow it, weaken it, dilute it."
On the day of the Senate vote, Putin dismissed the potential new sanctions during an annual call-in show that was broadcast across Russia.
"We have always lived under sanctions, whenever Russia grew stronger there would always be sanctions, throughout history," Putin said, according to NBC News. "There is a U.S. bill to toughen sanctions… it's evidence of the domestic political problems in the U.S."
Putin added that previous sanctions had been an indirect benefit to Russians because the economic limitations forced them "to switch our brains on."