A rare role reversal played out in Washington on Thursday night, as the Senate took a break from debating the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to pass a bipartisan bill that will serve to alienate U.S. allies and isolate America.
That job, of course, is typically reserved for President Trump, but Congress showed decisively that the administration doesn’t have a monopoly on the practice, voting 98-2 to apply new sanctions to Russia, Iran, and for good measure, North Korea, too.
The Iran sanctions threaten to blow up the Iran nuclear deal, a landmark foreign policy achievement of President Obama’s, one negotiated with both European allies and with Russia and China. The Russian sanctions have been met with threats of retaliation not just from Russia but from the European Union, which is apoplectic that the U.S. is threatening to undo its regional energy policy. And the North Korean sanctions, well, nobody really knows what those will do.
The bill passed in the House 419-3 with little objection. When the Senate took up a similar sanctions bill last month against Russia and Iran, the measure passed overwhelmingly, with Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rand Paul, R.-Ky., the only dissenting voices. They were again the only dissenters Thursday.
Sanctions bills against U.S. adversaries usually sail through Congress uncontested, and on a bipartisan basis. Few members of Congress want to vote against sanctions, fearful that the move could be spun into an attack ad that accusing them of being pro-Russia or pro-Iran.
The bill has the enthusiastic backing of Democrats, who are looking to punish Russia for its election interference. Since several of the meetings between Trump administration and Russian officials reportedly discussed sanctions relief, coverage of the Trump-Russia scandal has dwarfed any discussion of how U.S. allies are likely to respond to new sanctions.
The sanctions may be a symbolic move for Congress, but they are very real to Europeans who do business with neighboring Russia. On Sunday, the European Union indicated that they would retaliate against additional sanctions on Russia, fearful that they would impact energy companies. A memo obtained from Brussels by the Financial Times said that the EU should “stand ready to act within days” if the bill was “adopted without EU concerns taken into account.”
Even the French government — which has allegedly faced its own election inference by Russia — spoke out against the sanctions. The French Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said the sanctions appeared to violate international law, and that the European Union would have to respond due to the impact on firms.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told The Intercept that the concerns of U.S. allies come second to the need to punish Russia for its election interference. “I just looked at the sanctions, and it’s very hard, in view of what we know just happened in this last election, not to move ahead with [sanctions],” she said.
When asked about international repercussions, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a Senate newcomer who many are speculating for a presidential run, said she would be concerned about the response of allies. “That’s part of the issue, isn’t it? We have to think about it in the context of our partners and friends. I do have concerns, yes,” she said after voting for the sanctions bill.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he was satisfied that the EU concerns had been addressed. “I looked at those concerns last night,” he said. “I know there were a number of changes made to the legislation to address the legitimate concerns. In other words, my view is that we effectively addressed the major concerns that were expressed.”
Yet Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the leading champions of sanctions with Russia, said that it was the job of the EU to come around to the legislation, not for the legislation to be brought around to them. “I hope they’ll come around,” he told The Intercept of the EU. “Not that I know of,” McCain said of any changes to the bill to accommodate them. “Certainly not in the portion of the bill I was responsible for.”
Another author of the bill, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., an ardent foe of the Iran deal, said that very little was done to take the EU concerns into account. “Not much, to be honest with you,” he told The Intercept. “There was some sense of the Congress that we should consult with our allies, and there was something actually done for — more about U.S. companies than about Europeans — about any joint ventures that might include a Russian partner on oil. But other than that, nothing much.”
Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, said that international allies concerns’ could be resolved diplomatically in the future. “This would be the type of thing that in the ordinary course of diplomacy our secretary of state and secretary of commerce would be sitting down with leaders in the EU to resolve any misunderstandings. I don’t believe the relationship of this administration with the EU has been that positive, and obviously there’s some skepticism about what our motives are.”
In addition, the new Iranian sanctions threaten to jeopardize the 2015 Iran deal negotiated by President Obama. Despite the fact the Trump administration has levied its own sanctions against Iran, the administration has certified that Iran is complying with the deal.
While the Iran sanctions bill was at an early stage, former Secretary of State John Kerry spoke out against it, saying it would jeopardize the Iran nuclear deal.
And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has threatened to retaliate tit for tat. According to Reuters, Iranian state media quoted the president saying, “If the enemy puts part of their promises underfoot then we will also put part of it underfoot. And if they put all of their promises underfoot then we will put promises underfoot.”
President Trump has not taken a clear position on the bill. White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci told CNN on Thursday that the president may sign the bill into law as is, or may even consider vetoing the measure.
Menendez said he wasn’t overly concerned with the European reaction, and that it was up to the administration to smooth it over. “I’ve lived through this through every sanction I’ve ever authored and it will take the administration’s leadership to make sure we bring our allies together,” he said.