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GOP seeks separation from Trump on Russia

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By Alexander Bolton and Jordain Carney,The Hill

Republicans on Capitol Hill are scrambling to distance themselves from President Trump's controversial comments on Russia earlier this week.

With less than four months before the election, Senate Republican leaders say they will likely act on legislation sponsored by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) this year. That measure would impose stiff economic penalties on Russia if it meddles in a U.S. election in 2018 and beyond.

[post_ads]Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated to colleagues that he may bring the bill straight to the floor, skipping the committee process to save time. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday declined to say whether the administration supports the Rubio-Van Hollen bill.

Meanwhile, other senators on both sides of the aisle are working on a slew of new Russia-related bills. These bills could be attached to the Rubio-Van Hollen measure or move on their own. Regardless of what - if anything - becomes law, the Trump administration will be pressed by senators and the media on where it stands on the pending bills.

Trump's approval rating dipped this week to its lowest level since March, according to Rasmussen - a polling firm that has published more favorable approval ratings for the president than others. That decline came after Trump sparked intense criticism for questioning intelligence findings of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump tried to walk back his statement Tuesday, but it fell short of what Republicans, who are fighting to preserve their vulnerable congressional majorities, wanted.

The president entangled himself further by apparently claiming Wednesday that Russia doesn't pose a threat to the 2018 midterm election, again contradicting senior U.S. intelligence officials. That statement dumbfounded GOP lawmakers, though the White House later said Trump's remarks were misunderstood.

Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said there's evidence that Russia will act more aggressively to influence the midterms this November.

"What they did in 2016 was just a warmup for what they're going to try to do in '18. They've gotten increasingly more sophisticated over the years," Cornyn said.

"I have every confidence they'll continue to try to up their game and create more chaos," he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Trump's claim that Russia no longer poses a threat "a big disconnect."

"I'm a bit surprised by the president's statement," he told reporters.

Republicans are pushing other proposals that would label Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, impose even tougher sanctions than the Rubio-Van Hollen bill favored by GOP leaders and secure U.S. election systems from cyberattacks.

Some GOP lawmakers predict that whatever passes will likely have enough votes to overcome a possible presidential veto.

"I feel really good that the language we have could pass," Rubio said. "We're going to have an election here very soon, and we need to act quickly to put in place penalties to discourage another attack."

He said Trump's claim that Russia no longer presents a threat "is just not true."

Rubio, who ran for president in 2016, said Trump has "a very different take on what's occurring" compared to Republican senators.

"I'm not sure we're going to be able to change his mind on it, but I can tell you we can pass a law that does something about it," he added.

The Senate is expected to take the lead on any new legislation meant to penalize Russia.

House Republicans don't have immediate plans to move legislation, though Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he'd consider it if the House Foreign Affairs or Financial Services committees or the Senate Banking panel passes a bill.
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A senior GOP aide noted that the House has twice passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, legislation that imposes sanctions on Russia, Iran and other entities that do business with Bashar Assad's government in Syria. It most recently cleared the House in May on a voice vote and is awaiting action in the Senate.

The Rubio-Van Hollen proposal could face obstacles in the House.

Some Republicans fear it could wind up harshly penalizing U.S. businesses or European Union allies.

"The big hook in that bill is sanctions against sovereign debt. Many view that as a step too far," said a House GOP aide familiar with sanctions discussions. "There are lots of potential for unintended consequences on the global economy."

Those concerns are shared by some in the Senate GOP conference.

One Republican senator who requested anonymity warned that Rubio's penalties are too harsh, warning they could have a "thermonuclear effect" on business that might "blow back" on the U.S. economy.

Cornyn said the bill will need to be carefully tailored to minimize the collateral damage.

"We'd need to figure out how to make it targeted so it wouldn't have ancillary damage to American companies and American interests," he said. "It's not necessarily easy to craft that legislation."

While Republicans work closely with the business community, there's a growing sense that they need to separate themselves from Trump's accommodating stance toward Russia.

Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has teamed up with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) to open the door to declaring Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.

"It's a bill that directs the Department of State to make a determination within 90 days of whether Russia meets criteria to be added to our state sponsor of terror list," Gardner said.

He cited Russia's alleged involvement in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine in 2014, interference in Western elections, allegiance with Assad and the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.

Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are pushing a bill that would protect U.S. election systems from cyberattacks. It would authorize grants for states to replace outdated voting systems and improve information sharing between federal and state officials.

Congress allocated $380 million earlier this year to encourage states to acquire more secure voting systems.

"Anytime you have any spot where you have a weak link, that's going to be your vulnerability in the future," Lankford said.

Graham says he is working on a bill that could impose sanctions that are even tougher than what Rubio has proposed.

"I'll make it as hard-hitting as I can," he said.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.) have unveiled legislation that would reaffirm Congress's support for the U.S. intelligence communities.

But many Republicans acknowledge that, with Russia erupting as a major political issue shortly before the midterms, they need to do more.
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"If we don't act on something like the Van Hollen-Rubio bill, I think the chances are better that [Russia] will act and be able to disrupt the 2018 election," Cornyn said.

Rubio predicted his bill could get 70 to 85 votes.

The legislation would require the director of national intelligence to issue a determination to Congress whether a foreign government has interfered in a federal election. If Russia is found guilty of such action, it would impose sanctions on major sectors of its economy such as finance, energy, defense and mining.

Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation imposing new sanctions on Russia a year ago. It passed the Senate 98-2 and the House 419-3.

Trump grudgingly signed the bill, releasing a statement that criticized it as "seriously flawed." The Trump administration also dragged its feet implementing the sanctions, missing key deadlines.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) on Wednesday complained that those sanctions still have yet to be fully implemented.

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