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Senators Work To Block Potential Attempts To Ease Sanctions On Russia


Democrat and Republican lawmakers are worried about President Trump's talk of making a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now two U.S. senators have introduced legislation hoping to put the brakes on any attempt by the executive branch to ease sanctions on Russia. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: As he introduced the so-called Russia Sanctions Review Act, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham issued a statement saying sanctions relief must be earned not given. And Russia, he says, has done nothing to deserve such a reward. One of the co-sponsors, Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, believes this legislation will draw a lot of support because it's about Congress playing its rightful role.


BEN CARDIN: Regardless of how you feel about Russia and whether sanctions are effective or how they should be imposed, I think almost every member of the Senate believes that Congress needs to be engaged in that discussion.

KELEMEN: The Russia Sanctions Review Act is similar to legislation that allowed Congress to review the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran. In this case, if the Trump administration wants to lift sanctions related to Ukraine or to cyber-attacks, it would have to certify to Congress that Russia has changed its behavior.


CARDIN: That gives us an opportunity to understand - and the public to understand - the president's policy as it relates to Russia, gives us a chance to weigh in and to work with the administration, so we have a coordinated unified policy with Russia. But if we disagree with the president, then we have an opportunity for the legislative branch of government to act.

KELEMEN: White House spokesman Sean Spicer wouldn't weigh in on this. He says the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, has already made clear that the Trump administration won't ease sanctions related to Russia's annexation of Crimea, unless Moscow returns the peninsula to Ukraine.


SEAN SPICER: With respect to the sanctions that specifically deal with Ukraine and Crimea, I think Ambassador Haley has spoken very, very clearly about that.

KELEMEN: What's less clear is the fate of other sanctions related to Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine and its cyber-attacks in the U.S. President Trump also set off alarms when he suggested in an interview on Fox this past weekend that the U.S. can't criticize President Vladimir Putin because, in Trump's words, the U.S. is not so innocent. A furious Senator John McCain fired back.


JOHN MCCAIN: There is no moral equivalent between that butcher and thug and KGB colonel and the United States of America, the country that Ronald Reagan used to call a shining city on a hill.

KELEMEN: McCain was on the Senate floor to pay tribute to one of Putin's opponents, the political activist Vladimir Kara-Murza. He's back in a Moscow hospital after apparently being poisoned for a second time. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.