Sen. Mike Lee heads to Russia as the Kremlin denies visas for two Senate colleagues who backed sanctions

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP file photo) Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, leaves a Republican lunch meeting and heads to the chamber where he voted to reject President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency at the southwest border, at the Capitol in Washington, March 14, 2019.

Washington • Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will travel to Russia this week despite two of his colleagues being denied visas by the country, possibly as retribution for supporting sanctions against Moscow.

Lee had voted against the sanctions, issued after Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., were denied entrance to Russia as part of an official congressional visit to the country. Both are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had backed penalties aimed at Moscow following its sustained and massive effort to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election with the goal of helping President Donald Trump and hurting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Lee is also set to meet with a Russian official, Konstantin Kosachev, who is under U.S. sanctions over his alleged role in the election interference.

The Russian state-run news outlet Tass reported that Lee would meet with Kosachev, the chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, on Friday, a meeting the news outlet said Lee requested.

"The senator’s trip to Moscow is the American’s initiative,” Kosachev told Tass. “Certainly, he accepted the proposal for a meeting at the Federation Council.”

"Russia has never refrained from such contacts, moreover we believe they are in high demand in the general context of bilateral ties at this stage,” Kosachev added. “We need to understand with what mood Mr. Lee is coming to Moscow and whether he is ready to make efforts for resuming a full-fledged dialogue between the parliaments. This meeting will demonstrate this.”

Lee's office said he would travel to Russia Thursday through Sunday and meet with “U.S. and Russian government officials and business leaders to discuss trade and military relations, religious liberty, and other issues important to both countries.”

“It is important for the United States to maintain a strong and open dialogue with the Russian Federation in order to make progress on matters that are central to American peace and prosperity,” Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said.

Carroll did not respond to a question about whether Lee has concerns that Russia would deny entry to his Senate colleagues or whether the senator believes his vote against sanctions earned him a visa.

Lee's office did note that Murphy told MSNBC that he had no issue with Lee going to Russia.

"I support him," Murphy told the cable network.

Lee is expected to meet with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor under whom Lee worked as chief counsel and who has announced he will return to the United States soon, possibly to run for governor again.

In June 2017, as details were still forthcoming about Russia’s efforts to undermine the 2016 election, Lee was one of two votes in the Senate against the sanctions. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the other.

Lee said then that the penalties were not going to help.

“The Russian sanctions amendment included funding for programs and support of policies that I believe are not effective at addressing problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship and have promoted progressive policies unrelated to countering Russia at the expense of American taxpayers,” Lee said in a statement.