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Hawkish Senate Democrats turn against Cruz’s sanctions bill

Foreign Relations Chairman Menendez set to counter with 'mother-of-all-sanctions' bill targeting Russia

Sen. Jack Reed and other Democrats like Sen. Bob Menendez say they will vote against Sen. Ted Cruz's pipeline sanctions bill.
Sen. Jack Reed and other Democrats like Sen. Bob Menendez say they will vote against Sen. Ted Cruz's pipeline sanctions bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A growing number of Democrats are criticizing a bill to require the imposition of sanctions on European officials assisting with the development of a Russian-German gas pipeline as a vote approaches, a sign it might not pass out of the chamber.

On Tuesday, a handful of key Senate Democrats who are generally seen as among the most hawkish in their party on Russia told CQ Roll Call they will vote against the bill from Sen. Ted Cruz. The measure would impose sanctions on foreign business officials who are leading development of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. A vote on the Texas Republican’s bill is expected this week.

Even as using sanctions to try to block development of the underwater pipeline has historically been popular with both parties, the rapidly changing situation in Eastern Europe, where Russia has amassed some 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s border, has many Democrats now questioning what is the best course of action for deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin from ordering an invasion. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York struck a deal right before the holiday recess with Cruz to allow a vote no later than Jan. 14 on the sanctions legislation. In return, Cruz agreed to release his holds on dozens of President Joe Biden’s diplomatic nominees.  

The timing of the vote comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts to stave off a Russian invasion. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is in Europe this week for a series of meetings with Russian, European Union and NATO officials about the situation in Ukraine. 

The administration is seeking to build consensus among NATO and EU members around potential joint steps they might take if Moscow attacks Ukraine. A vote in the Senate in favor of sanctioning a key German energy project would be a setback for the administration’s strategy, which relies on close partnership with Germany, the de facto leader of the EU. 

“No,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said when asked how he would be voting. “You mean ‘the let’s poke our key ally in the eye right in the midst of a negotiation with Putin?’” 

Added Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.: “Let’s just say I’m highly suspicious of his (Cruz’s) motives in pursuing the bill. And while I’m no fan of Nord Stream 2, I think it’s important to support the Biden administration’s foreign policy work in this area.” 

The Nord Stream 2 bill would order asset freezes and travel bans on any corporate officials for businesses that are developing the pipeline. Those sanctions would go into effect no later than two weeks after bill enactment and in practice would likely impact the German and Swiss corporate officials working to finalize the pipeline. 

‘Tough spot’

Cruz and other Republicans have talked up the bill as sending a tough message to Russia and have accused wavering Democrats of caving to White House pressure.  

“I don’t know why this is so hard for them,” Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Thune, R, S.D., told reporters on Monday. “I know that they view it as somehow putting the president in a tough spot, but it just seems like this is a huge issue with respect to what’s going on at the border of Ukraine, and also with our solidarity with Europe.”

GOP lawmakers have largely rejected the Biden administration’s argument that sanctioning the pipeline would kill valuable leverage against Putin and drive a wedge into the relationship with Germany right as the new government in Berlin is sounding somewhat more open to U.S. arguments against allowing the pipeline to be turned on while Russia is still actively threatening Ukraine. 

“We’re working hard to try to educate people about how this proposal is not designed to stop the Nord Stream pipeline,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who has been trying to rally his Democratic colleagues to vote against the measure. “This is an effort by Ted Cruz to try to divide the United States from Europe and embarrass the president. This is not a legitimate means of stopping the pipeline.” 

Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Senate Foreign Relations Europe subcommittee Chairwoman Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., also all said they would vote against the Cruz bill. 

Even if the sanctions bill were to pass over the White House’s objections, Murphy predicted that at best the sanctions would result in a two-month delay in the 1,230-kilometer (764-mile) pipeline coming online. At present, German regulators have paused their process for approving the pipeline. 

“The only way you stop the pipeline is through effective diplomacy. And that diplomacy for the first time in a long time is working,” Murphy said. “The German government has agreed to indefinitely postpone construction of the pipeline. Why on earth in the wake of the German reversal position would you sanction them?” 

‘Strong deterrent’

Last week, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the Biden administration wanted to see a “credible, strong deterrent” come out of Congress against Russian aggression, but said sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is not the way to do it. 

“Our concern is that, if passed, the legislation would only serve to undermine unity amongst our European allies at a crucial moment when we need to present a unified front in response to Russian threats against Ukraine,” the spokesman said. “Russia would interpret any daylight in our position stemming from sanctions on Nord Stream 2 as an opportunity to exploit a fissure in the Transatlantic relationship, and this administration is determined not to give them that.” 

Price noted the administration was working with European partners and U.S. lawmakers on a package of sanctions “that maximize the potential costs to Russia if Moscow does continue with aggression against Ukraine.” 

Menendez on Monday told reporters he is preparing to circulate among senators “the mother-of-all-sanctions” bills against Russia that would be triggered if it attacks Ukraine. Without getting into specifics, the Foreign Relations chairman said his bill would include “sectoral sanctions, individual sanctions, banking sanctions.” 

“We think that that’s going to bring in a large universe of people who will know that this is a better way to achieve the goal of not having Russia invade Ukraine than Cruz’s Nord Stream sanctions,” the senior New Jersey senator said. 

Not to be outdone, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Tuesday said he soon would be releasing his own bill that would sanction Moscow for its military buildup on Ukraine’s border instead of holding the economic punishments back for deterrence. 

“I think the leverage is to crush the Russian economy for the threat of invading the Ukraine,” he said. 

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