White House and Putin Among Biggest Critics of Russia Sanctions Bill

Vladimir Putin, Russian president
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 1. Dmitri Lovetsky/Reuters

The White House is pushing House Republicans to ease a bill sanctioning Russia that was passed in the Senate last week.

A bipartisan group of Senators passed the bill 98 to 2 on Thursday. The bill codifies and expands financial sanctions against Russian businesses and individuals in response to Russia's interference in the 2016 election and annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014.

A senior Trump administration official told Politico Saturday that the White House will not stand idly by and allow power to be taken away from the president. If the bill passes the House it would mean that President Donald Trump would have to get congressional approval for any roll back of the sanctions regime against Russia.

The White House is seeking to work with House Republicans to soften the bill, the senior official said.

"I would urge Congress to ensure any legislation allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this week.

The Trump administration has been in talks with Russia about returning diplomatic properties seized late last year after then President Barack Obama kicked 35 Russian diplomats out of the country, following Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 election by hacking political parties and engaging in a massive misinformation campaign.

In addition to codifying current sanctions on Russia, the Senate's bill would bring new penalties on Moscow's defense, military intelligence, and energy sectors.

Read more: Trump White House made secret efforts to remove Russia sanctions

The current sanctions have stalled Russia's economy and contributed to a devaluation of its currency, the Russian ruble.

The White House is worried that forcing the president to go through congress to make changes to the sanctions will hamper his ability to improve U.S.-Russia relations.

Trump has promised to improve the relationship between the two countries but his ability to make concessions is complicated by ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. election and whether associates or members of Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to sway the election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday that the new sanctions will damage ties between the two countries. "It will of course complicate the Russian-American relationship," Putin said during an interview reported by the state-run newswire TASS Saturday.

Putin said that his government does not have an immediate response to the bill but, last month, Russia threatened a tit-for-tat response if its diplomatic properties were not returned.

Republican Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain praised the new bill when it passed the Senate on Thursday. And Democrats expressed concern about President Trump's potential attempt to influence the bill in the House.

"I'm concerned about it, but I don't really have the ability to dictate what the White House says to the House," Senator Tim Kaine told Politico. "I can't imagine the House would want to be apologists for Russian behavior after the combined weight of the intelligence communities all weighing in saying, 'Look, they attacked the United States.'"