House Democratic leaders on Thursday introduced new legislation imposing sanctions on Russia, the latest step in a weeks-long fight between Republicans and Democrats over how to advance a sanctions bill.
"We felt on the Democratic side it was imperative since we hadn't really made progress and we wanted it clear that we were not the ones stalling the bill, that we do something today to show that we want to move forward," New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Washington Examiner.
Engel is one of three Democratic leaders to introduce the legislation, which is identical to a bill that an overwhelming majority of Senate lawmakers already approved in June. That Senate bill fell afoul of a constitutional requirement that revenue-raising bills originate in the House, a so-called "blue-slip" restraint that Engel's substitute would resolve if it is taken up as a new bill in the House and then sent to the Senate.
"I hope that stemming from this will be negotiations that the two sides can agree on," Engel said.
But that doesn't mean that the Democratic bill solves the problem, because a second procedural problem has arisen over who has the right in the House to call up a resolution opposing a White House decision to waive sanctions against Russia.
In the original Senate-passed bill, any member of the House who wanted to introduce a resolution of disapproval condemning a sanctions-related decision would have been allowed to file it as a privileged resolution. That would allow even members of the House minority to force votes on the issue, even though the House typically runs on majority rule.
House Republicans expect Democrats to abuse that power. So when the Senate moved to fix the blue-slip problem, it removed language allowing any member of the House call up a resolution disapproving of a White House decision to waive the sanctions. As a result, Democrats believe the new Senate bill would leave it up to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to decide whether or when the House can vote on a resolution disapproving of a White House sanctions waiver decision.
According to Democrats, that change undermines the novel part of the Senate sanctions bill, which was congressional oversight over any decision by Trump to waive sanctions.
Republicans have indicated so far they are not interested in the Democratic bill, and say the Democrats' proposal simply shows the Democrats aren't interested in passing a sanctions bill.
"This is grandstanding and not a serious effort to resolve this issue and hold Russia accountable," AshLee Strong, House Speaker Paul Ryan's national press secretary, told the Washington Examiner. "This new package effectively means that the Senate would have to consider it all over again, further delaying passing a sanctions package."
Republicans also defended the Senate tweaks as something that should provide adequate oversight of how Trump enforces the sanctions.
"It still allows a majority of members in the House to move on a resolution of disapproval to block the administration from lifting sanctions," a senior Republican aide told the Washington Examiner. "But what it does not allow is for the House to be bogged down by privileged resolutions offered by any individual member on dozens of dozens of potential waivers, licenses, and sanctions moves by the administration that would not be significant."
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who co-sponsored the Russia bill introduced Wednesday night, told reporters earlier in the day that Republicans should accept language that allows only the Democratic leadership, rather than rank and file, to offer privileged resolutions of disapproval. The legislation they introduced Wednesday evening doesn't include that change, but Democrats are still using it to argue that Republicans are to blame for the hold-up.
"While Republicans shirk their constitutional duty to protect our democracy, House Democrats are introducing the bipartisan Senate-passed Russia sanctions bill and challenging House Republican leadership to bring it to the floor for an immediate vote," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday.
But Ryan's team maintains that Pelosi and the other leaders are making a disingenuous argument. "The easiest path to passing additional sanctions continues to be that House Democrats agree to a [unanimous consent resolution] to send the bill to the Senate so that the fixes they've already passed could be executed," Strong said.