If there's one thing all our elected leaders from both parties ought to agree on, it's that Russia's role in cyberattacks on the 2016 election were a provocation that must be answered. In the Senate, that was very nearly true. An amendment to an Iran sanctions bill would add new sanctions against Russia in response to its election meddling and other destabilizing activities, including its involvement in the Syrian civil war and its continued incursions into Ukraine. The measure, which was largely the work of Maryland's Sen. Ben Cardin, passed 98-2.
But President Donald Trump's administration opposed it, and now the White House is working to block or weaken it in the House. To go soft on a regime that, according to new reporting in the Washington Post, spent more than a year hacking into American elections systems under the explicit instructions of President Vladimir Putin to hurt one candidate and help elect another, is outrageous. For the administration to do so in the midst of an investigation into whether the Trump campaign played a role in the Russian effort is simply mind-blowing. The House needs to put partisanship aside and pass the Senate bill.
The legislation codifies a number of existing sanctions that were adopted by executive order and creates new ones on "corrupt Russian actors; those seeking to evade sanctions; those involved in serious human rights abuses; those supplying weapons to the Assad regime; those conducting malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government; those involved in corrupt privatization of state-owned assets; and those doing business with the Russian intelligence and defense sectors," according to a news release from Mr. Cardin's office.
But perhaps most to the point, it blocks President Trump from lifting any of the sanctions without congressional review — including blocking him from returning to Russia a compound on the Eastern Shore that the Obama administration seized after learning it had been used for spying.
During the debate in the Senate, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson opposed the measure, claiming it would rob the administration of "the flexibility to turn the heat up" if necessary. It does nothing of the kind. What's really going on, according to a report in the New York Times, is that the administration wants the ability to hold out easier sanctions as a bargaining chip in talks with Moscow. Administration officials had previously lobbied Congress not to impose any new sanctions at all for fear of interrupting efforts to improve relations with Russia.
Fundamentally, it would be awkward for the Trump administration to support additional sanctions on Russia given the president's steadfast assertion that not only did his campaign not have anything to do with the cyberattacks but that the whole matter was made up by Democrats. Mr. Trump hammered that theme again in a series of tweets on Thursday, calling the hacks "a big Dem HOAX!" and "a big Dem scam and excuse for losing the election!"
The first hiccup for the sanctions bill in the House came in the form of a procedural issue related to the constitutional requirement that revenue-raising bills originate there and not in the Senate. Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, viewed that objection "cover for a president who has been far too soft on Russia." But the issue appears to be on the way to being worked out. The question of the substance of the legislation, however, remains entirely uncertain. House Speaker Paul Ryan voiced support for the measure, but it's headed now to committee hearings, and there are myriad ways for the Trump administration and the House to monkey with the legislation in ways that would imperil it.
Perhaps the most devious would be to ratchet up the Iran sanctions in the bill. They were carefully calibrated to respond specifically Iran's ballistic missile program and other bad acts without imperiling the U.S. nuclear deal with that country. Upset that balance, and the bill could lose Democratic support in the Senate despite a near universal desire to see a tough response to Russia.
The House should move quickly and get this bill to President Trump's desk. The administration has not said whether he would veto it or let it become law. Surely no sane president in his position would veto this bill, but with Mr. Trump, you never know. That's why it's crucial for the House to display the same kind of bi-partisan resolve that the Senate did.