WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Republican and Democratic senators introduced legislation on Wednesday seeking to deter Russia from meddling in U.S. elections by threatening stiff sanctions on its banking, energy and defense industries and sovereign debt.
The “Deter Act” is the latest effort by U.S. lawmakers to increase pressure on Moscow over what they see as a range of bad behavior, from its aggression in Ukraine and involvement in Syria’s civil war to attempts to influence U.S. elections.
The measure was introduced by Senators Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican. They offered a similar measure last year, when it also had bipartisan support but was never brought up for a vote by the Senate’s Republican leaders, who have close ties to President Donald Trump.
Trump has gone along with some previous congressional efforts to increase sanctions on Russia, although sometimes reluctantly.
Backers of stronger action against Russia believe such measures will have better prospects in 2019, given control of the House of Representatives by Democrats, who are less reluctant than Trump’s fellow Republicans to push back against the White House.
According to details of the legislation, first reported by Reuters, it would require the U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to determine, within 30 days of any federal election, whether Russia or other foreign government or anyone acting as an agent of that government, had engaged in election interference.
If the DNI found such interference occurred, the act would require, among other things, that mandatory sanctions be imposed within 10 days on, among others, Russian banks and energy companies.
The act would mandate that sanctions be imposed on two or more of the following Russian banks: Sberbank, VTB Bank, Gazprombank, Vnesheconombank and Rosselkhozbank.
It also would order the prohibition of all transactions subject to U.S. jurisdiction in Russian sovereign debt, Russian government bonds and the debt of any entity owned or controlled by Russia’s government.
The sanctions would include blocking - freezing without seizing - any assets in the United States of those targeted for sanction, including senior Russian political figures and business leaders.
Russia denies trying to influence U.S. elections. But U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have found that Moscow sought to intervene in the 2016 vote to boost Trump’s chances of winning the White House.
An investigation by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not establish that members of Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia during the 2016 election, according to a summary released by U.S. Attorney General William Barr last month.
The Deter Act is targeted at Russia but notes that U.S. intelligence has identified China, Iran and North Korea as other major foreign government cyber threats. It also asks that Trump’s administration present Congress with a strategy on preventing interference in U.S. elections for each of those countries and other countries of significant concern.
The senators timed the bill’s release to come after the end of Mueller’s investigation, which has cast a shadow over the first two years of Trump’s presidency, and just before an address to Congress by Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the NATO alliance, who has focused on the threat posed by Russia.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott