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Senate passes Russian sanctions, setting up potential showdown with White House

Setting up a potential confrontation with President Trump, the Senate overwhelmingly approved tougher Russian sanctions Thursday as Congress begins to reassert the legislative branch's check on the White House.

In a strong bipartisan vote, the Senate passed a sweeping package, 98-2, which includes bolstered sanctions on Russia, Iran and a reaffirmation of NATO allies' commitment for mutual defense.

The measure now goes to the House, but the administration has raised concerns over the Russia provisions. The White House has not yet said whether Trump would sign the bill into law.

The administration has signaled it wants an improved relationship with Russia, and many in Congress want to prevent the White House from easing sanctions against the U.S. adversary.

The measure requires Congress to review any effort by the Trump administration to loosen sanctions on Russia.

Thursday's vote comes as investigators are probing whether Trump's campaign coordinated with Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as the president's decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called it "particularly significant that a bipartisan coalition is seeking to reestablish Congress as the final arbiter of sanctions relief, considering that this administration has been too eager – far too eager in my mind -- to put sanctions relief on the table."

Senators attached the Russia provision to the broader Iran sanctions bill, which is popular and would be tougher for Congress and the White House to reject.

They also tacked on an amendment from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reasserting the United States' commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Article 5 charter provision that states that an attack on any one member is considered an attack on all.

Trump declined to make that commitment during remarks at NATO's headquarters in Brussels last month, despite signals from administration officials he would. He did say at a news conference last week, in response to a question from a Romanian reporter, that he was "committing the United States" to the principle.

The measure firms up existing sanctions against Russia and imposes new ones.

Among those targeted are a wide array of what senators called "corrupt Russian actors," including those engaged in hacking, seizure of state resources, human rights abuses and supplying arms to the Syrian regime.

Asked last week about the potential Russian sanctions provisions, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration was "committed to existing sanctions" that were imposed related to Russia's incursions into Ukraine. 

"We believe that the existing executive branch sanctions regime is the best tool for compelling Russia to fulfill its commitments, and the administration will continue to work with Congress to ensure that we pursue the best course of action," she said. 

Attempts to sanction Russia for interfering in the election had stalled in Congress but gained momentum last week as the Senate began considering a separate bill to impose broader sanctions on Iran.

Democrats insisted that the Congress should also respond to Russia's aggressions, including its annexation of Ukraine, attacks in Syria and interference in the U.S. election.

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