N. Korea sanctions bill passes the House 418-2, Senate seeks compromise bill

By now, you’ve probably read the news about last night’s lopsided vote. Interestingly, it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who were unanimous in their support. The two dissenting votes were Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, both isolationist Republicans from the Ron Paul mold. 

Dissent may be patriotic, but it’s never beyond some well-deserved ridicule.

[Reminder: The views expressed on OFK are the author’s alone.]

You have to hand it to Nancy Pelosi for running a tight ship. In the end, even Charles Rangel and Barbara Lee voted “yes.” John Conyers didn’t vote. 

Here’s a link to the final bill the House passed.

Today, all eyes turn to the Senate, which has very little time to reach unanimous consent on its own bill in this election year. The good news is that all of the right senators — with the exception of Harry Reid, so far — are saying that it’s a priority:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the upper chamber will soon take up sanctions legislation against North Korea after the country claimed it detonated a hydrogen bomb.

“Sen. [Cory] Gardner has been working on a North Korea sanctions bill. We anticipate it will come out of the Foreign Relations Committee very soon, and I intend to schedule floor time on it shortly,” he told reporters.

The Republican leader met with Gardner, a Colorado Republican, and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, on the issue earlier Tuesday. [The Hill]

Said Corker:

“We have members on our side, and the other side, that have bills here, so we’re going to go through it methodically,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) added, separately, that two proposals have been introduced in the Senate — one from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and another from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) — and that he’s already had “some conversations with [with Corker] to make sure we have one bill.” [….]

Corker said that while the briefing with the administration didn’t specifically focus on what sort of sanctions Congress should impose, he added, “I think they believe that action by Congress would be helpful.” [….]

“I think we’re working with Senator Gardner, who has a bit of a different version, to reconcile it, and see if we can bring it to the chairman in a bipartisan effort,” the New Jersey senator said. [The Hill]

Both Corker and his Democratic Ranking Member, Ben Cardin, insist that action in the Congress should not be a substitute for action in the U.N. Security Council. They’re right, of course. U.N. sanctions and member state national sanctions work best in concert with each other. U.N. sanctions unite member states and help smooth out international enforcement gaps, but they have no force of law unless the member states enact and enforce sanctions of their own. All of the sanctions bills on the table now stress that by calling for the State Department to step up its diplomatic game.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he expected the Senate to vote on a measure to sanction North Korea soon, though he emphasized that the United Nations should also act.

“We’ve got to step up our game, be proactive and I think you’re going to see Congress over the next short period of time taking its steps, but it’s my hope the international community and our administration will be much more bold,” Corker told reporters following a closed briefing with officials from the State and Defense departments and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. [The Examiner]

Now that a sanctions bill has passed the House, the administration seems to have softened its line on whether Congress should meddle.

Corker also said the witnesses were open and said the administration “is probably more open in this case to Congress taking action and putting in place a toolkit to deal with this issue.”

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., also said he expected Congress to take action against North Korea.

“It’s important that the [United Nations] Security Council takes action, we hope that they will. It’s also important for the United States to show international leadership to strengthen our sanctions regime against North Korea. So I think you’ll see action,” he said. [The Examiner]

The comments followed a classified Senate hearing on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

“I think they believe action by Congress could be helpful,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), emerging from a meeting on North Korea with administration officials. “It’s my sense anyway that Congress taking action on this issue could be beneficial and I think you’re going to see that happen.” [WaPo]

All of which gives hope that the Senate will get its act together, reach a compromise, and pass a bill out of Committee. Once that happens, I doubt the bill will attract opposition in the full Senate. What’s less certain is what the Senate’s compromise bill will look likeHaving reviewed both Senate bills, compared them to the House version, and had some discussions with Senate staff, my guess is that the Senate won’t just pass the House bill. Its own negotiations are probably too delicate for that. Senators will want to add their own language on diplomacy, human rights, human trafficking, and funding of humanitarian programs. That’s what’s supposed to happen when bright minds add good ideas. But the final content of the Senate bill will be 80 to 90 percent of the same DNA as H.R. 757.

My greater concerns are, first, that some of the Senate language in Section 104, the key enforcement trigger, lacks the coherence of what the House ultimately passed, and even (accidentally) leaves out the mandatory sanctions for arms trafficking. I don’t expect that to be controversial or difficult to fix.

Second, the National Committee for North Korea asked for some amendments to the language because of its fear that the House version could adversely affect humanitarian programs. Unfortunately, those requests came three months too late for consideration in the House markup. Myself, I think the concerns are overblown. The humanitarian waivers and exemptions in Section 207 of the House version are broad enough to deal with all of them, particularly if Treasury gets off the dime and starts working on implementing guidance now, assuring bankers that transactions in food and medicine are safe to handle, as it belatedly did with Iran. But NCNK’s recommended amendments were also conscientious, well written, and harmless to the bill’s effectiveness. In that case, if we all share the same concerns and goals, why not compromise? For whatever my view matters, I hope the Senate takes most of them aboard, and have said so to the right people.

Third and finally, one of the two competing Senate bills has mandatory sanctions for the worst conduct — proliferation, human rights abuses, money laundering, etc. — and one does not. In a perfect world, Congress could defer such matters to the President’s discretion, but this isn’t a perfect world. President Obama won’t use the discretion he has, and his predecessor, George W. Bush, threw his away because he didn’t know how to use sanctions as part of a comprehensive policy or a competent negotiation process. That gives Congress the responsibility to help the President lead. The fact that such targets as Chinpo Shipping, KNIC, NADA, Unit 121, Ri Chol, 88 Queensway, Hwang Pyong-so, and Kim Jong-un himself haven’t been designated by now — yet Robert Mugabe, Alexander Lukashenka, and Bashar Assad all have been — shows you just what’s wrong with this picture.

It’s as if someone in the State Department secretly granted Kim Jong-un transactional immunity, or (more likely) just decided to outsource the problem to our Chinese frenemies. I can’t quite explain it.

The only real opponent now is the calendar. It’s entirely possible that the House and Senate could both act, their attention spans could expire, and they could both disperse to their respective campaigns before they get agreed language through a conference committee. Certainly the Senate bill could make the House’s good bill even better. Each of the pending Senate bills contains endemic language that I hope to see in the final version. I’m sure you could find hundreds of people in this town who would express their own subjective opinions in that regard. The greatest danger now is that the perfect will become the mortal enemy of the good.

3 Comments

  1. Good progress so far. Hopefully the Senate does its part well with effectively amending and passing the bill.

  2. Does this mark the end of the cozy relationship between
    Christine Ahn and Barbara Lee? Representative Lee is
    going to have some explaining to do to the pro-North
    groups with which she has long been allied.

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