US Senate advances measure critical of easing Russia sanctions

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (C) speaks to members of the media after meeting with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill on January 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by AFP)

The US Senate has voted to move ahead with a Democratic-backed resolution blocking President Donald Trump’s plan to lift sanctions against three major Russian companies.

Senators voted 57-42 on Tuesday to advance legislation that would disapprove of a Washington’s plan to ease sanctions on Russian aluminum giant Rusal as well as En+ Group and power firm EuroSibEnergo.

The three companies are claimed to have ties with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian business tycoon and an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The bill had been proposed by Democratic Senate Minority leader Senator Chuck Schumer based on a provision in a 2017 Russia sanctions law.

Under a 2017 law, Congress has the authority to halt any decision by the Trump administration to weaken sanctions, providing lawmakers with a 30-day window to reject the plan if lawmakers believe it undermines US economic and national security interests.

The Tuesday vote in favor of the disapproval resolution came despite efforts by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to convince Republicans in the US Senate to kill the bill.

"I do disapprove of the easing of the sanctions because I think it sends the wrong message to Russia and to the oligarch -- a close ally of Mr. Putin, Oleg Deripaska -- who will in my judgment continue to maintain considerable control under the Treasury's plan," Susan Collins, a Republican Senator from Maine, said after the vote.

In this file photo taken on June 01, 2017, Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, who heads aluminum producer Rusal, attends the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) in Saint Petersburg. (By AFP)

The US Treasury notified Congress in mid-December of its intent to lift sanctions on the Deripaska-connected companies.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the Tuesday resolution as a “political stunt.”

"It was all just a farce. The Democratic leader doesn't actually mind doing other business because he now intends to bring a privileged and political stunt of a motion relating to the administration's use of sanctions against Russia,” McConnell said.

Mnuchin had argued that opposing the resolution would be a “vote to go easy on President Putin and his oligarchs.”

A total of 60 senators will be required to pass the resolution in a vote expected to be held on Wednesday and at least two Republicans would have to change their votes for the measure to pass.

The vote comes as US Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been running a thorough investigation into alleged Russian interference in the US 2016 presidential elections and possible collusion between Trump's campaign and Moscow.

Ever since Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the US intelligence community has overwhelmingly maintained that Moscow sought to meddle in the 2016 election.

The Trump campaign is accused of collusion with the Kremlin to find damaging information on his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Trump has denied any collusion by his campaign and has long denounced the Mueller probe as a witch hunt and a hoax. Moscow has also denied any involvement.

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