The Russia-sanctions saga on Capitol Hill isn’t over just yet.
Even after the Trump administration finally began to implement the package of sanctions in March that Congress approved overwhelmingly last year, Defense Secretary James Mattis has reignited the fight by requesting a waiver for certain U.S. allies to avoid penalties for conducting business with Moscow.
The waiver cleared its first hurdle last week as it was included in the annual defense-spending bill that the House Armed Services Committee advanced on a bipartisan basis. But the Democrats involved in the original crafting of the legislation are wary of giving an administration that has been hesitant to impose Russia sanctions any sort of ability to avoid doing so.
“I’m skeptical of giving waivers on sanctions to Russia,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Otherwise we undermine the very essence of our efforts.”
Mattis originally made his plea for waiving some sanctions on U.S. allies buying Russian arms at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month. He specifically mentioned countries such as India, Vietnam, and Indonesia that are moving away from reliance on Russia in the long term, but still need them in the short term to maintain older military equipment.
“We only need to look at India, Vietnam, and some others to recognize that eventually we’re going to penalize ourselves,” Mattis said at the hearing. “Indonesia, for example, is in the same situation, trying to shift to more of our airplanes, our systems. But they’ve got to do something to keep their legacy military going.”
So far, that argument hasn’t been enough to win over Democrats who were leading proponents of sanctioning Russia for interfering in the 2016 elections and annexing the Crimean peninsula.
“I have major concerns about giving waiver relief on CAATSA,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee who cosponsored the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
Mattis’s request could also include granting India an exemption to buy a S-400 missile-defense system from Moscow. Under CAATSA, the country would be penalized for the purchase.
The sanctions waiver made it through the House Armed Services Committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for the next fiscal year with little fanfare, as the panel approved the bill by a 60-1 margin. The committee’s chairman, Mac Thornberry, also made sure to highlight ahead of time that the NDAA sought to counter Russian aggression in other ways, including by placing additional sanctions on the country’s arms industry.
How that waiver will be received moving forward is an open question. An aide to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said the congressman agrees with Mattis that “U.S. partners working to curb Russian ties over the long term should not be penalized.”
But the panel’s ranking Democrat, Eliot Engel, who like Royce was a CAATSA cosponsor, disagreed. Engel said that while Democrats hadn’t formulated a strategy yet, they planned to make an issue of the waiver when the NDAA comes to the House floor.
“I don’t know why the Republican Party, starting with the president on down, is reluctant to go after the Russians,” Engel said. “I don’t understand.”
Next week, the Senate Armed Services Committee is set to mark up its version of the NDAA. Sen. James Inhofe, who is overseeing the panel as Chairman John McCain battles brain cancer in Arizona, said Wednesday he had not yet spoken with Mattis about the waiver issue. “We have not addressed that,” Inhofe said.
If Mattis were to request a similar waiver, Jack Reed, the Armed Services Committee’s ranking Democrat, said the panel would look at it “very seriously.”
“We’re very, very responsive to the secretary’s requests typically,” Reed said. “I think people are sympathetic to his position.”
Any rift on the waiver may force Sen. Bob Corker back into the role of mediator on Russia sanctions. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker shepherded the legislation through both chambers of Congress last summer amid a series of procedural hurdles as well as pushback from the White House.
Corker said he’s had several conversations with Mattis and that he wants to help him solve the problem. But Corker acknowledged that it won’t be easy.
“The question is, how do you do that with the Russia issue being such a politically charged issue?” Corker said.
The primary technical issue will be ensuring the language of the waiver is specific enough so only a select few transactions avoid sanctions. The administration cited a broad national security waiver in CAATSA when declining to immediately impose the first round of sanctions earlier this year, much to the chagrin of lawmakers from both parties.
Corker, however, spoke positively of the waiver the House Armed Services Committee designed.
“The House did a pretty good job with their language, actually. It wasn’t just a pure national security waiver,” Corker said. “If we can find a vehicle to fix it on, I’m all for it.”