Congress likely to shelve new Russia sanctions as clock runs out

President Donald Trump, left, and Russian president Vladimir Putin speak at a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018.



Congress isn't expected to pass legislation ordering new U.S. sanctions on Russia before the end of the year, as lawmakers focus instead on government spending measures, judicial nominations and a farm bill, key senators said.

A bipartisan group of senators moved swiftly over the summer to assemble new proposals for Russia sanctions following President Donald Trump's summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. But as Congress enters the so-called lame duck period before newly elected lawmakers take office in January, time is running short for action on the bills.

"We don't have very much time," John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, told reporters on Tuesday. "It's going to be a real race, unless everyone wants to stay here for Christmas."

Lawmakers were considering new sanctions legislation a little more than a year after the Republican-controlled Congress passed an aggressive measure that forced the Treasury Department to target wealthy people close to Putin -- so-called oligarchs. Trump, who has sought a warmer relationship with Putin, grudgingly signed it into law rather than face a possible override of his veto.

The ruble jumped 1.5 percent to 67.1025 against the dollar as of 6:39 p.m. in Moscow on Wednesday, its strongest advance in two months and the best performance among emerging markets tracked by Bloomberg. Ten-year government bonds jumped the most since January 2016, cutting the yield 33 basis points to 8.70 percent.

Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who has been involved in talks on the sanctions legislation, also said Congress appeared to have no time left to pursue legislation this year.

"The clock is running out on us," he said, adding: "We don't have an administration that's actually embracing it."

Moscow may have bought itself at least a brief reprieve from additional U.S. sanctions after midterm congressional elections that so far show no sign of the sort of interference that plagued the 2016 vote that Trump won.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, who would be key to advancing any legislation, said that passing a bill he's sponsored called the Deter Act "would be sort of missing the mark" after a U.S. vote that appears to have been unmarred by Russian meddling.

Corker's comments indicate that if punitive measures are eventually required, the Senate may go back to the drawing board to decide what options best fit the current climate with Russia.

But any new interference by the Kremlin might still trigger Congress to act, said John Smith, who in May left as director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which implements sanctions programs. Trump is expected to meet again with Putin at the G-20 summit in Argentina at the end of this month.

"Both Republicans and Democrats have largely believed that the Trump administration has not done enough to sanction Russia for its election interference in 2016," Smith said in an interview. "You can expect that those appetites on Capitol Hill will continue."

The Trump administration has already struggled to manage some Russia sanctions. While the Treasury Department has boasted that its April sanctions on dozens of Russian tycoons, companies and key Putin allies were among the most significant ever, the impact is waning because the department has repeatedly delayed imposing some of the measures.

On Friday, Treasury for the fourth time extended a deadline for sanctions to be imposed on the world's second-largest aluminum producer, United Co. Rusal. The extensions work in part to cool aluminum markets, which were shocked by the April sanctions, and to allow Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska more time to relinquish control of Rusal and the holding company he controls, London-based EN+.

Treasury is "having trouble closing the deal with Deripaska and they keep doing these short-term extensions that doesn't make them look very good," said Dan Fried, who previously served as a coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department. The delay is somewhat weakening the impact of Treasury's sanctions on Russia, he added.

Senators involved in drafting the new sanctions legislation told aides in September to cancel their fall plans and focus on the bills, according to two people familiar with the matter. Before the midterm elections, the Treasury department had been providing technical support almost daily to congressional aides, the people said.