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Tillerson warns against steps that cut off talks with Russia

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. relationship with Russia is at an all-time low and deteriorating further, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday, yet he cautioned against taking steps that might close off promising avenues of communication between the two former Cold War foes.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson was noncommittal about a package of new Russia sanctions, saying he’s still reviewing the proposed penalties that Senate Republicans and Democrats agreed upon after lengthy negotiations. But it’s important, he stressed, that President Donald Trump have the flexibility “to turn the heat up” on Russia if necessary.

At the same time, he also said he doesn’t want to preemptively shut down a potentially productive conversation. As an example, Tillerson said talks with Moscow on stabilizing war-ravaged Syria are progressing, but it’s too early to tell if the discussions will bear fruit. Imposing more sanctions could lead the Russians to curtail the dialogue.

Top lawmakers on two Senate committees — Banking and Foreign Relations — announced the sanctions deal late Monday amid the firestorm over Russia’s meddling in the presidential election and investigations into Moscow’s possible collusion with members of President Donald Trump’s campaign.

The plan calls for strengthening current sanctions and imposing new ones on corrupt Russian figures, those involved in human rights abuses and those supplying weapons to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The package also would require a congressional review if a president attempts to ease or end current penalties. And, penalties would be slapped on those responsible for malicious cyber activity on behalf of the Russian government.

If the Trump administration decides to oppose the new sanctions, they could be in a bind. The package is to be added to a bill imposing penalties on Iran that the Senate is currently debating. So the White House would have to reject stricter punishments against Iran, which it favors, in order to derail the parts of the legislation it objects to.

“The amendment to the underlying Iran sanctions bill maintains and substantially expands sanctions against the government of Russia in response to the violation of the territorial integrity of the Ukraine and Crimea, its brazen cyberattacks and interference in elections, and its continuing aggression in Syria,” said Republicans and Democrats on the committees.

A vote on the Russia sanctions is scheduled for Wednesday, and the measure is expected to get strong bipartisan support. The legislation was worked out by Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, of the Banking Committee, and Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Ben Cardin, D-Md., of the Foreign Relations panel.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., also participated in the negotiations and pushed for provisions that bars punished individuals from using family members to get around the sanctions.

“This amendment also takes appropriate steps to ensure that current sanctions cannot be unilaterally unwound by this administration,” Shaheen said.

The legislation also allows new penalties on key elements of the Russia economy, including mining, metals, shipping and railways.

House and Senate committees are investigating Russia’s meddling and potential links to the Trump campaign. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting a separate probe.

The sanctions package is rooted in legislation introduced earlier this year amid concerns on Capitol Hill that Trump may seek to lift sanctions against Russia as part of a plan to forge a partnership between the two countries in key areas, such as counterterrorism. In early January, before Trump was sworn in, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill designed to go beyond the punishments already levied against Russia by the Obama administration and to demonstrate to Trump that forcefully responding to Moscow’s election interference wasn’t a partisan issue.

Then-President Barack Obama in late December ordered sanctions on Russian spy agencies, closed two Russian compounds and expelled 35 diplomats the U.S. said were really spies. Those penalties were on top of existing U.S. sanctions over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which have damaged Russia’s economy but had only limited impact on Putin’s behavior.

A month later, senators introduced another measure that would require the president to get approval from lawmakers before easing Russia sanctions. Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said at the time that the measure was styled after 2015 legislation pushed by Republicans and approved overwhelmingly in the Senate that gave Congress a vote on whether Obama could lift sanctions against Iran. That measure reflected Republican complaints that Obama had overstepped the power of the presidency and needed to be checked by Congress.

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Contact Richard Lardner on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rplardner

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