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Russian President Vladimir Putin applauds during the State Prize awards ceremony marking the Day of Russia at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Natalia Kolesnikova/Pool

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By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday for new sanctions punishing Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and to force President Donald Trump to get Congress' approval before easing any existing sanctions.

The vote was 97 to two for the legislation, filed as an amendment to an Iran sanctions bill. It is intended to punish Russia over issues including alleged meddling in the election, annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and support for the government of Syria in that country's six-year-long civil war.

The measure sets up a process for Congress to review changes in sanctions, puts into law actions previously established via presidential executive order, imposes new sanctions on Russians found guilty of human rights abuses or conducting cyber attacks.

It was introduced amid an intense focus in the U.S. capital on relations with Russia, and investigations by the Department of Justice and congressional committees of whether Russia sought to influence the 2016 U.S. elections to help elect Trump, and whether Trump associates colluded with Moscow as it sought to influence the election.

Moscow denies any such activity, which Trump has dismissed as sour grapes by the Democrats he defeated.

The Iran bill, including the Russia sanctions amendment, was expected to pass the Senate on Thursday or later on Wednesday.

To take effect, the measure would also have to pass the House of Representatives and be signed into law by Trump. If Trump objected, some of its backers said they expected enough congressional support to override a veto.

"Today the Senate has finally confronted Russia for interfering in our elections. This bipartisan amendment is the sanctions regime that the Kremlin deserves for its actions," said Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a leader of the push for the legislation.

The only two "no" votes on the Russia bill were from Republican Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Tom Brown)

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