Almost a dozen Senate Republicans broke with the White House Tuesday on Russia, voting to move forward on a resolution that would maintain sanctions on companies linked to oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
The Democratic resolution would stop the Treasury Department from lifting penalties against the Russian aluminum manufacturing giant Rusal and two other companies connected to Deripaska. Senators took two procedural votes to proceed to the resolution, with 11 Republicans voting with Democrats.
While Democrats are unlikely to get the 60 votes they will eventually need to pass the resolution, the strong GOP showing — which came hours after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin came to Capitol Hill and urged Republicans to vote against the resolution — is yet another signal that Senate Republicans are willing to oppose the White House and President Donald Trump on national security matters.
"I'll vote to disapprove Treasury's easing of sanctions on Russian businesses involving oligarch & Putin ally Oleg Deripaska," Republican Sen. Susan Collins tweeted after the vote. "He still would maintain significant control given his ties to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. Easing the sanctions sends the wrong message to Russia & to Deripaska."
At issue is a December announcement from the Treasury Department that the U.S. would lift sanctions on the three companies — Rusal, EN+ Group and the Russian power company JSC EuroSibEnergo. EN+ Group is a holding company that owns nearly 50 percent of Rusal.
The Treasury Department says the Russian companies have committed to separating from Deripaska, who will remain blacklisted as part of an array of measures announced in early April that targeted tycoons close to the Kremlin. Treasury maintains that the companies have committed to diminish Deripaska's ownership and sever his control. In a statement last week, Mnuchin said Deripaska remains under sanctions, "his property and interests remain blocked, and any companies he controls are also sanctioned."
Treasury has warned that the sanctions could upset global aluminum markets or even prompt the Russian government to nationalize the company, thus shutting it out from any outside control.
Mnuchin said after his closed-door meeting with Republican senators that the sanctions "shouldn't be a political issue." Echoing Trump, Mnuchin said, "we have been tougher on Russia with more sanctions than any other administration."
But 11 Republicans still voted to move forward on the resolution, which was sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
The vote came less than a month after a similar scenario played out in votes to end U.S. assistance to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen and blame Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. While the Trump administration sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary James Mattis to Capitol Hill to encourage Republicans to continue the U.S. assistance, several Republicans defected, angered by what they said was Trump's lackluster response to Khashoggi's killing.
The two measures were never considered by the House and expired at the end of the congressional session.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell encouraged Republicans on Tuesday to vote against the sanctions resolution, noting that Deripaska's influence over the companies would be limited and calling the vote a "Democratic stunt."
McConnell said Republicans are "hardly strangers" to the need for strong policies on Russia. He added that they have "long seen Vladimir Putin for the KGB thug that he is," referencing the former Russian secret police and intelligence agency.
Schumer said that if senators agree with McConnell that Putin is a thug, "they'll vote yes" on the resolution.
"We're only a few Republican votes short of the U.S. Senate telling Putin he can't run the show no matter what President Trump and his administration try to do," he said.
The Senate is expected to hold another procedural vote to move forward on the resolution Wednesday, and this time supporters will need 60 votes. If Tuesday's tallies are any indication, they will be just short — 57 senators voted in support of proceeding to the resolution.
The House could also hold a vote soon, as Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., has introduced a similar resolution to Schumer's. Congress has 30 days from the Dec. 19 announcement to block the sanctions decision.
Last week, House Democratic chairmen from seven committees called Mnuchin in for a classified briefing on the easing of the sanctions. But many Democrats left frustrated, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying she was "unimpressed."
In a letter asking Mnuchin for a briefing, the committee chairmen said the sanctions deal appears to allow Deripaska to keep "significant ownership" of one of the companies. They did not elaborate.
Democrats have asked for an extension of the 30-day timeline because the sanctions announcement came just before a holiday recess and the start of the government shutdown. Mnuchin said after his Senate meeting that Treasury will see how the Senate vote goes.
"Our view is that we have great responsibility in managing the sanctions programs all over the world, and we take those responsibilities very seriously at Treasury," Mnuchin said.
In addition to Collins, of Maine, the Republican senators voting with Democrats were John Boozman of Arkansas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Steve Daines of Montana, Cory Gardner of Colorado, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Martha McSally of Arizona, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Jerry Moran of Kansas.