A bill that toughens sanctions on Russia in the wake of the Kremlin’s efforts to disrupt the 2016 presidential election sailed through the Senate with a huge 98-2 majority last week, but it has run into a roadblock in the House of Representatives. The reason for the hold-up varies depending on who is asked, with Republican leaders insisting that there is a serious constitutional problem with the bill, while Democrats charge that the GOP is simply giving cover to the Trump administration, which continues to seek friendlier relations with Moscow.
The legislation, originally designed to target Iran, had additional sanctions on Russia added to it, along with a provision that restricts the ability of the president to relax the sanctions without first consulting with members of Congress. It managed to win nearly unanimous bipartisan support, even at a time when partisan infighting -- particularly related to the alleged connections between the Trump campaign and Russia -- is especially high.
However, on Monday, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) announced that his staff had referred the bill to the House parliamentarian, who declared that part of it is unconstitutional because it violates the founding document’s origination clause. The origination clause declares that “all bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.”
When a bill raising revenue is introduced first by a member of the Senate, it is known in the House as a “blue-slip” violation, which normally means the bill is going nowhere. (This is separate from the “blue-slip” opinions in the Senate, which individual senators sometimes use to block federal judicial appointments to courts in their home states.)
Just which element of the bill was seen as a revenue-raiser was unclear as of Tuesday. Some speculated that fines imposed on businesses and individuals who do not observe the sanctions outlined in the bill could be construed as raising revenue. However, a reading that strict would allow the House to raise constitutional objections to a wide variety of Senate bills that don’t have the raising of revenue as a primary or even secondary purpose.
Brady said that he believes the problem can be fixed by the Senate, which may have to find a way to vote on a different version of the bill, even as Senate leadership tries to clear the decks of major items like health care reform and raising the debt ceiling.
“I strongly support sanctions against Iran and Russia to hold them accountable,” Brady told reporters. However, he added, “The final bill, and final language, violated the origination clause in the Constitution.”
However, Democrats were not inclined to believe that there wasn’t an ulterior motive to the call to block the bill. Just a day before the Senate passed it, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and appeared to speak against the measure, as he pressed the Trump administration’s case for more “constructive” relations with Russia.
"I would urge Congress to ensure any legislation allows the president to have the flexibility to adjust sanctions," he told lawmakers.
Trump himself has countless times called for repairing the deteriorated relationship between Washington and Russia, and has reportedly asked aides to examine the options for and likely impact of undoing existing sanctions. In fact, Trump’s seeming eagerness to make the sanctions go away was part of the impetus behind the Senate bill in the first place.
In a statement Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer criticized Trump for being too “soft” on Russia and called on the House to pass the Senate bill immediately.
Others were more biting. Rep. Eliot Engel called the move “nothing but a delay tactic.” He added, “If Republican leadership says we can't act on the Senate bill, here's an easy solution: Let’s introduce an identical House version and we can vote on that instead.”