Republicans Break Ranks Over Move to Lift Sanctions on Russian Oligarch’s Firms
WASHINGTON — A group of 11 Republican senators broke ranks with their leadership and the administration on Tuesday to side with Democrats in a showdown over sanctions on Russia, underscoring the political sensitivity of the issue amid questions about President Trump’s relationship with Moscow.
The Republicans voted with Democrats seeking to keep sanctions in place on companies controlled by an influential Russian oligarch with connections to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The 11 Republican votes allowed Senate Democrats to advance a measure that would reverse a decision last month by the Treasury Department to lift sanctions that it imposed last year on companies controlled by the oligarch, Oleg V. Deripaska, including the aluminum giant Rusal.
The Treasury Department’s decision would leave in place personal sanctions on Mr. Deripaska and require him to give up control over Rusal and two linked companies, EN+ and JSC EuroSibEnergo.
The measure still needs to clear several more hurdles, and proponents need to attract at least two more Republican votes to win final passage in the Senate. But Tuesday’s vote was a symbolic crack in the Republican Party, and came despite opposition from the majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and a last-ditch plea by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The vote in some ways forced Republicans to choose between the party’s traditional foreign policy, which has long supported a tougher line on Russia, and Mr. Trump, whose warmer stance toward Russia has inflamed questions about Moscow’s efforts in 2016 to help elect him.
The sanctions were announced by the Treasury Department last April on Mr. Deripaska, his companies and those of other Russian oligarchs in retaliation for the Russian meddling in the presidential election. The announcement was touted as evidence that the administration was taking a tough stance against Moscow despite Mr. Trump’s equivocation on Russian interference and his warm words for Mr. Putin.
But the Treasury Department repeatedly delayed the full implementation of the sanctions against the three Deripaska companies amid an aggressive lobbying and legal campaign in Washington by the companies and their allies. They argued that the sanctions could have unintended negative effects on companies in the United States, Europe, Jamaica, Guinea and elsewhere by disrupting the supply of aluminum.
The Treasury Department echoed those concerns in announcing last month that it would lift the sanctions against the three Deripaska companies as part of an agreement that it said would reduce Mr. Deripaska’s ownership and control of the companies.
The move prompted howls of protest from Democrats and some Russia hawks, who accused the administration of going soft on Russia in the midst of the special counsel’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia’s election meddling. Mr. Deripaska has emerged as a bit character in the story lines around the investigation as a result of his payments to Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, who has been convicted and pleaded guilty to charges brought by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
Democrats urged the Treasury Department to postpone the final decision on sanctions relief for Mr. Deripaska’s companies until after Mr. Mueller’s investigation concludes.
And the party’s congressional leaders began pushing resolutions in the Senate and the House this week to override the sanctions relief. The resolutions were introduced under a provision in a 2017 law that allows Congress to override certain sanctions-related decisions by the Treasury Department. Under the provision, both the House and the Senate would need to pass resolutions by a Thursday deadline to block the administration’s move to lift the sanctions. Failing congressional action, the sanctions would automatically be lifted.
The Democrats’ efforts at first seemed to stand little chance, given efforts to stifle them by the administration and the Republicans who control the Senate.
Mr. Mnuchin visited Republican senators on Tuesday before the vote to implore them to support the sanctions relief. The appearance followed a briefing to the House last week in which he argued that the deal his agency negotiated with Mr. Deripaska’s companies would punish the oligarch by separating him from the companies, without having economic ripple effects. The briefing left Democratic leaders unconvinced.
And Tuesday’s Senate vote indicated that Mr. Mnuchin’s assurances did not assuage doubts among the party’s Russia skeptics that the deal with Mr. Deripaska’s companies sufficiently decreased his control.
“I don’t like the way it’s structured,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who voted with Democrats and has been among the party’s leading critics of Russia.
The measure passed 57 to 42, with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, missing the vote as she announced her first step to start a campaign for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
The measure will face another Senate vote — this one requiring 60 votes — as soon as Wednesday.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, who introduced the resolution, foreshadowed the way his party intended to frame the fight if it does not get its way.
“We’re only a few Republican votes short of the U.S. Senate telling Putin he can’t run the show no matter what President Trump and his administration try to do,” Mr. Schumer said. “If Republican senators agree with Leader McConnell, who said that Putin is a ‘thug’ — they’ll vote yes tomorrow.”
In addition to Mr. Rubio, the other Republican senators who voted with Democrats were John Boozman of Arkansas, Susan Collins of Maine, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Steve Daines of Montana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Josh Hawley of Missouri, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Martha McSally of Arizona, Jerry Moran of Kansas and Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Mr. Daines said keeping the sanctions in place would help “keep pressure on the Kremlin for their aggressive actions towards Eastern Europe, the Middle East and around the world.”
The vote was a particularly stinging defeat for Mr. Mnuchin, who for the second time in less than a week tried to defend the decision to ease the sanctions to lawmakers on Capitol Hill to no avail.
After being criticized by House Democrats last week for wasting their time in a classified briefing on the sanctions that they said offered little information, Mr. Mnuchin told Republican senators on Tuesday that upholding the department’s decision should not be political and that doing so was important to maintaining the integrity of the sanctions regime.
But the sales pitch was not enough to hold Republicans together.
Alan Rappeport and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.
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