WASHINGTON -- A group of U.S. senators has introduced legislation that would hamstring any effort by President Donald Trump's administration to lift sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
The bill, called the Russia Sanctions Review Act, has both Republican and Democratic backers and comes amid mounting concerns in Congress about the Trump administration's policy intentions toward Russia.
Trump has repeatedly signaled he wants more cooperation with Russia in areas like the fight against international terrorism, particularly in Syria. But his administration has made statements about Ukraine and other issues that echo Russia's perspective, in contrast to the previous U.S. administration.
Senators Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) and Ben Cardin (Democrat-Maryland) are among the group backing the legislation that would impose strict congressional oversight and veto power over the Trump administration if it sought to lift sanctions on Russia.
"The reason for the Russia Review Act is that we've heard the president speak several times about potentially reducing or eliminating sanctions," Cardin told reporters on February 8.
"So it's aimed at getting consultation from Congress and, if necessary, action from Congress, if the president were to change our policy on the current sanctions without the broad support and understanding of Congress."
The bill is co-sponsored by Senators John McCain (Republican-Arizona), Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida), Claire McCaskill (Democrat-Missouri), and Sherrod Brown (Democrat-Ohio).
Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, froze assets and banned visas on a range of top Russia officials after Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Ukraine, the United States, and the EU also say that Russia has supported separatist forces in eastern Ukraine who are fighting Ukrainian troops. Russia denies those charges.
More than 9,750 people have been killed in the fighting in Ukraine's Donbas region.
At a February 8 news briefing in Washington, White House spokesman Sean Spicer declined to comment on the bill, saying that he was "not going to get into pending legislation."
But he referred to February 2 comments by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, expressing "strong condemnation of Russia's actions" in eastern Ukraine and stating that Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Moscow hands control of the peninsula back to Ukraine.
"With respect to the sanctions that specifically deal with Ukraine and Crimea, I think Ambassador Haley has spoken very, very clearly about that," Spicer said.
McCain said in a statement after the legislation was introduced that easing sanctions against Russia "would send the wrong message as [Russian President] Vladimir Putin continues to oppress his citizens, murder his political opponents, invade his neighbors, threaten America's allies, and attempt to undermine our elections."
"Congress must have oversight of any decision that would impact our ability to hold Russia accountable for its flagrant violation of international law and attack our institutions," added McCain, who has repeatedly been accused by officials in Moscow of baselessly stirring up anti-Russian sentiment in Washington.
Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Cardin said the legislation was modeled after the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, a 2015 law giving Congress a say in the landmark deal between Tehran and world powers to restrict Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for easing sanctions.
He expressed optimism that the legislation will receive broad bipartisan backing in Congress and said he believed it could be passed with sufficient support to prevent Trump from vetoing it.
With reporting by Mike Eckel