Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is pictured. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 13, 2017. | AP Photo

Tillerson signals trouble for Senate’s bipartisan Russia sanctions deal

06/13/2017 12:48 PM EDT

Updated 06/13/2017 05:54 PM EDT

As the Senate gears up to pass a bipartisan deal to punish Russia and restrict President Donald Trump from any attempt to ease sanctions, his administration and House Republicans are signaling that the agreement has a shaky future.

Senators in both parties have urged Trump to avoid leveling any veto threat on the Russia sanctions deal that’s on track for passage Wednesday, which sets up a congressional review process if the president decides to ease or remove penalties against Moscow.

But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that the agreement to get tough on Russia would shut off communications with Moscow that he’d like to keep open for now.

“What we would like is the flexibility to turn that heat up when we sense that our efforts” are failing to secure greater cooperation from Russia on anti-terrorism efforts and resolving the Syrian civil war, Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Tillerson added that the U.S. and Russia “have some channels that are open where we’re starting to talk, and I think what I wouldn’t want to do is close the channels off with something new.”

Trump has told people since taking office that he did not intend to lift sanctions imposed in 2014 against Russia over its aggression in Ukraine, but his administration also has floated such relief as a possible incentive to get Vladimir Putin’s government’s cooperation on fighting terrorism. He has also been dismissive of reports of Russia’s role in attempting to interfere with the 2016 election.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker shrugged off Tillerson’s seemingly negative comments on the sanctions agreement, telling reporters that “I wouldn’t give my support to a bill I hadn’t really gone through in detail either.” The deal emerged after 10 p.m. on Monday, and the Tennessee Republican said the administration hasn’t yet “gotten into the finite details.”

Corker, who Trump considered instead of Tillerson to lead the State Department, also predicted that Trump would eventually sign the Russia sanctions deal should it reach his desk.

Meanwhile, the House has yet to commit to taking up the Senate’s bipartisan Russia deal, which would add new sanctions as well as establish a congressional review of any Trump administration changes to the current penalty structure.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) “needs to review the sanctions agreement the Senate came to late last night, but he has been a strong supporter of previous sanctions in the past,” spokeswoman AshLee Strong said by email.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said at a committee hearing last month that he is “working to try to develop bipartisan support” for proposals to hit back at Putin’s government after Russian cyberattacks aimed at disrupting the 2016 election.

Royce underscored that sanctions against Russia are already in place but added that “we are looking at ways of sending an additional message.” The Senate’s Russia agreement also puts the existing sanctions into law, likely making them more difficult for the White House to ease.

Corker said he and Royce have “talked very superficially” about the House’s approach to Russia sanctions, adding that he hopes House Republicans “will find many strengths in the legislation we have passed” as they decide how to move ahead.

Sabrina Singh, spokeswoman for the Democratic opposition group American Bridge, slammed Tillerson for his Tuesday comments.

“For an administration that claims to put ‘America First’ they seem to go out of their way to do the exact opposite,” Singh said by email. “Opposing bipartisan sanctions is sadly just the latest example of this administration prioritizing Russian interests at our country’s expense.”

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