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Senators struggle on Russia sanctions as ‘hourglass’ runs low

As Putin moves in, 'the Senate schedule is not in our favor right now,' aide says

The ranking members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, James M. Inhofe and Jim Risch, discuss tensions with Russia over Ukraine on Wednesday.
The ranking members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, James M. Inhofe and Jim Risch, discuss tensions with Russia over Ukraine on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senators are feeling hard-pressed to take action intended to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from giving the invasion order as Russia increases its threats against Ukraine by the day.

The Senate calendar poses a challenge to getting anything done in time to impact Putin’s strategic calculus. The chamber is scheduled to be out next week and there is not yet a clear path ahead for voting on a Russia sanctions vehicle that could clear Congress. 

“It is an issue,” said Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch, R-Idaho, of the compressed timeline lawmakers have for reaching agreement on a sanctions bill that can amass 60 votes in the Senate and also pass the House. It would then also have to be signed into law with enough time to affect Putin’s decision-making as the situation in Ukraine grows more tense as the drums of war get louder. 

Democrats, with the support of the White House, are amassing around a “mother-of-all-sanctions” bill from Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J. The bill would put in place a substantive sanctions regime that would be triggered if there was a Russian invasion. While the United States has imposed similarly severe sanctions on North Korea and Iran, the sanctions outlined in the bill have never been tried before on an economy of Russia’s size.

Though the bill was only introduced last week, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, who is a co-sponsor, has used the chamber’s procedure to bypass committee consideration of the measure and bring it to the floor. The legislation has 41 co-sponsors — but they are all Democrats. 

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are still smarting over their inability last week to find 60 votes to pass a GOP-favored bill that would impose sanctions within two weeks on the German and Swiss business officials leading the finalization of work on the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. 

That continued focus on Nord Stream 2 and GOP insistence that the way to solving the Ukraine crisis is to impose direct sanctions on the energy project or get Germany to abandon the pipeline permanently is eating up valuable time on Capitol Hill. Democrats and the Biden administration argue the crisis of over 100,000 Russian troops poised on Ukraine’s borders has overtaken the future of the pipeline, which has few fans in Washington. 

Menendez had initially planned to use this week, which was originally scheduled as a recess period, to secure Republican buy-in for his bill with a floor vote contemplated possibly as soon as next week. But winter weather and the COVID-19 omicron variant threw those plans into disarray. 

“One hundred percent, the Senate schedule is not in our favor right now,” said a Senate Democratic staffer, who was granted anonymity to be candid. “The hourglass is about to run out on this.”

At a Wednesday Capitol press conference convened by Republican senators to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, the roughly dozen lawmakers who spoke said they wanted Putin to know they were united with Democrats in opposing any moves against Ukraine.  

And while the fate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline consumed much of their policy focus, a few suggested they were also open to supporting a bipartisan sanctions bill — though none went so far as to get behind the Menendez measure.  

“What we want to do is have a bipartisan bill that expresses the strong, unified position of this Congress … that we are going to impose devastating sanctions” should Russia attack Ukraine, said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., over the weekend led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Ukraine to meet with its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a show of solidarity. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., several days ago offered his own Russia sanctions bill, which has drawn support from his side of the aisle. While the Rubio measure shares some sanctions elements in common with the Menendez bill, such as targeted sanctions against Putin and sweeping sanctions against Russia’s energy sector, it goes further than the Democratic bill in at least two respects.  

One is the requirement rather than the authorization, as Democrats would do, of sanctions designed to expel Russian banks from the SWIFT payments system, a central feature of the international financial system that processes quick and secure cross-border transactions at major banks around the world.  

The other is the immediate reimposition of sanctions on Nord Stream 2 that were waived last year by the Biden administration. The Menendez bill would only impose sanctions on the pipeline if Russia attacks Ukraine.

“I think passing something is better than passing nothing,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who was part of the bipartisan delegation that traveled to Ukraine over the weekend. “I think passing Menendez instead of Rubio is not as good as passing Rubio.” 

“We want to have a strong, bipartisan sanctions package,” Cramer said later. “Melding existing legislation together, strengthening it from our standpoint, I think it could have an overwhelming vote but if they choose to have a water-downed sanctions package, I don’t know how strong a vote [it will be]. But I want a big vote because that again expresses the unity.” 

Menendez has said he is open to merging some Republican ideas into his bill.  

“Hopefully, we can incorporate them in a way that creates a unified, powerful voice” from Congress to Putin that “there will be incredibly severe consequences to the Russian economy,” the senior New Jersey senator said during a Monday MSNBC interview. 

Speaking to reporters in Kyiv on Tuesday, Ukraine’s top diplomat sounded a note of confidence in the multilateral sanctions approach being pursued by the Biden administration. 

“Our main expectation right here from the United States, from our European partners, is to make sure that they are successful in agreeing on very strong sanctions that would be applied towards Russia,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said after a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. “We see progress in the negotiation between the United States and the European Union every day, and they are moving forward in bringing all those sanctions in one package.” 

But Blinken sidestepped a reporter’s question about reports of division within the European Union over whether to kick Russian banks out of SWIFT as punishment for potential aggression against Ukraine. He instead spoke broadly about the severe economic consequences Europe and the United States were preparing to inflict on Russia. 

“We’re in, as I said, not only very close consultation with European countries and institutions on this, but also in a place where should it come to that – and I hope it doesn’t, but should it come to that, we will act strongly, in a coordinated manner, to impose those consequences on Russia,” the secretary said. 

President Joe Biden met virtually on Wednesday with the senators who traveled to Ukraine over the weekend. During a White House press conference later Wednesday, Biden told reporters he hopes Putin will eventually opt against an invasion.

“I thought it was a very instructive and constructive discussion,” Cramer said. “I don’t think we surprised the president or [national security adviser Jake] Sullivan or anybody in the administration with what we said. And quite honestly, we listened as much as we spoke.”  

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