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Senators wrestle with Russia sanctions as Ukraine crisis deepens


Senators are racing to pass a bipartisan plan to try to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine. It might already be too late.

With the Biden administration warning that Moscow could launch an offensive against Kyiv at any moment, senators from both parties are hustling to back up their promises of bipartisanship with a legislative response aimed at crippling Russia’s economy if President Vladimir Putin triggers a war in eastern Europe. But despite some positive momentum, Republicans and Democrats have yet to agree on a consensus sanctions plan.

And the sense of urgency expressed by both parties is belied by the state of the Senate floor. Democratic leaders have dedicated their time this week to a doomed-to-fail elections reform push and are staring down a week-long recess to close out the month.

By the time Congress returns to session, Putin could be already in the midst of a cross-border incursion.

“It is disheartening to see that the trajectory is in the wrong direction,” Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said of the efforts to keep Russia out of Ukraine. “It is really important that that trajectory be reversed. And the only way that’s going to happen is if we act now.”

Even a belated breakthrough on sanctions would back up lawmakers’ rhetoric about bipartisan support for Ukraine with concrete actions. Any forward motion on Russia sanctions could also give a boost to President Joe Biden, who has already detailed to Putin the specific punishments that would be set in motion if Russia violates Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“My guess is he will move in. He has to do something,” Biden said Wednesday. But, he warned: “[Putin has] never seen sanctions like the ones I’ve promised will be imposed if he moves” into Ukraine.

The White House has endorsed legislation from Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) that would set off a range of unprecedented sanctions targeting Russia’s key economic sectors, including financial institutions. But senators from both parties want to see a more comprehensive approach — and while both parties agree on supporting Ukraine, Republicans favor more immediate sanctions.

So far, lawmakers’ tough talk isn’t translating into a legislative consensus.

“We’re not sending American troops, but in my view, there should be much more expansive arms aid, a massive airlift of … lethal weapons,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who just returned from Ukraine on a bipartisan Senate delegation trip. “We should impose those sanctions sooner rather than later, not wait for the invasion to start. I think there is strong unity on both of those principles.”

For many Republican senators — if not House members — the importance of keeping Putin at bay outweighs domestic political considerations.

“What we want to do is have a bipartisan bill that expresses a strong unified position,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who co-led the delegation to Ukraine over the weekend. “We are going to impose devastating sanctions if this occurs, and we are going to provide additional military assistance to Ukraine, and we are going to help the other countries in the region provide for their defenses.”

Democratic leaders see that as a de facto endorsement of their plan, as they push to use Menendez’s legislation — dubbed the “mother of all sanctions” — as the framework for a bill that could win the requisite 60 votes.

Menendez is already talking with several Republicans about incorporating their ideas. He indicated that his goal is to use the upcoming Senate recess to reach an agreement on a bill that could pass: “If we could at least announce something and say that we’re going to vote on it as soon as it comes back, that’d be great.”

At least one Republican, Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, has already endorsed the Menendez framework.

“Passing something is better than passing nothing,” said Cramer, who joined Portman on the Ukraine trip. “We’ve got to work on it fast. … At the end of the day, I think we need to get to a package that is decisive and that is enough to be a deterrent to action.”

But winning enough GOP support for Menendez’s bill is an uphill battle. Democrats are looking to the Republican senators who joined the bipartisan trip to Ukraine, where they received first-hand accounts of the dire situation facing the budding democracy.

“As of yet, nobody has given Vladimir Putin a bloody nose for any this,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was on the Ukraine trip, lamented of Putin’s malign interference in eastern Europe. “I think the alliance — our friends in NATO and a bipartisan majority — is prepared to assist Ukraine in making sure that if it happens this time, Vladimir Putin will get a bloody nose.”

But while they’re preaching unity, lawmakers still disagree about the best way to deter a Russian invasion, which some now see as inevitable.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he is open to “reasonable additions and modifications” to Menendez’s bill in order to secure enough buy-in from Republicans to clear the 60-vote threshold.

That could include legislation from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would target top Russian officials and companies, including Putin himself. A separate group of Republicans introduced legislation that would boost military assistance to Ukraine, sanction the Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, and designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism if it invades.

In the meantime, Risch has discussed modifications to Menendez’s bill that could woo Republicans.

“I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” Risch said when asked to describe the status of the talks. “It’s a work in progress.” But he called the upcoming Senate recess “an issue.”

“The focus now should be on stopping an invasion, not what happens afterwards,” Risch added. “What happens afterwards is not really debatable.”

Menendez’s bill conditions its sanctions on a Russian invasion. It’s an approach that proponents say could deter Putin from launching an incursion into Ukraine because it would communicate the exact punishments to Putin as he weighs whether to invade.

But Republicans, and Ukraine’s leaders, have argued instead that the U.S. should take more immediate steps, like imposing sanctions on Nord Stream 2. Senate Democrats blocked a bill put forward by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) last week that would have sanctioned the pipeline, arguing it removes some of U.S. leverage on Russia.

Now that Cruz’s measure has been defeated, though, those same Democrats see fertile ground for a bipartisan compromise.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a top Biden ally, said it was important to “show Putin’s Russia and other nations around the world that are trying to assess how divided we are” that there’s “bipartisan resolve in confronting Russia.”

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