Top Senate Democrats and the Biden administration are maneuvering behind the scenes to defeat a measure from GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas that would impose sanctions on businesses associated with a major pipeline from Russia to Germany, aiming to shore up Democratic unity amid high-level US talks with Russia.
The effort comes as a number of Democrats are weighing whether to break from the administration and back the Cruz measure, wary about appearing soft on Russia amid rising tensions with Ukraine and eager to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Approving the plan would amount to an embarrassment to the Biden administration, which has argued that the sanctions would undercut US efforts to deter the threat from Russia.
Democrats are quietly drafting an alternative plan — led by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat — and are encouraging their members to support that Democratic plan instead of Cruz’s. That plan would impose sanctions on Russia, but only if it invaded Ukraine, according to Democratic senators.
It’s unclear if the administration backs the Menendez measure — and all the precise details of the bill — but it’s been the subject of growing talks among Democrats, including in a private meeting in the Senate on Monday night with senior State Department official Victoria Nuland.
“I think it’s much stronger,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said of the Menendez measure, noting that he included language dealing with Baltic region in the plan. “It’s a strong message to Putin — much better than the Cruz approach.”
Menendez told reporters Monday that his plan is the “mother of all sanctions legislation” that would impose sanctions against individuals and industry sectors “if Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Cruz forced a concession from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for a vote by this week on his Nord Stream 2 bill after holding up swift confirmation of dozens of Biden’s nominees to be ambassadors and to fill other high-level State Department posts. If it were to pass the Senate, it’s unclear if it would be brought up by the Democratic-controlled House.
Still, some Democrats are weighing backing the plan, putting the bill closer to the 60 votes needed for passage.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat facing reelection in the fall, told CNN on Monday she backs the Cruz measure.
“I’m going to be consistent,” the Nevada Democrat said. “Listen, I think we need to be strong in support of Ukraine against Russian interference and aggression quite honestly. I’ve been consistent in my positions all along.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate West Virginia Democrat, said Monday he didn’t know if he’d back the Cruz plan. “That’s what I’m going to get educated on,” when asked if he backs the measure.
Cruz believes the newly constructed 750-mile pipeline, which is not yet operating, would empower Putin and allow him to hold dangerous leverage over Europe by controlling the flow of much-needed natural gas there. The Ukrainian government has come out in support of his plan.
But the Biden administration, which has had shifting positions on the need for sanctions against the project, is now arguing the West will have better leverage over threatened Russian aggression against Ukraine if the pipeline is operating because Germany would be able to turn it off if Russia actually invades its neighbor.
“Some may see Nord Stream 2 as leverage that Russia can use against Europe; in fact, it’s leverage for Europe to use against Russia,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who organized the Monday briefing with Nuland, criticized Cruz’s bill while also making clear he didn’t know if it would get the necessary 60 votes to advance to final passage.
“This is not good policy for the United States Senate to allow Ted Cruz to break us from our transatlantic partners in the middle of a delicate negotiation over the future of US-Russia, and Europe-Russia policy,” Murphy said.
It remains to be seen whether that argument will unify Democrats, many of whom have voted in favor of sanctions against the project in the past, and prevent Cruz’s measure from getting the 60 votes it needs to pass. For foreign policy hawks and some Democrats running for reelection, the desire to vote to punish Russia is strong.
Speaking on the floor Monday, Durbin criticized Cruz’s bill as a “weaker response to the crisis on Ukraine’s border” and said it would “only serve to complicate the efforts to repair relations with our European ally, Germany, which has crucial energy needs.” He also that Cruz measure would set a “dangerous precedent” because if would make it harder for Biden to waive the sanctions if he decides doing so is in the best interest of the United States.
Cruz’s agreement with Schumer said a vote had to take place by Thursday. Aides and senators won’t say exactly when the vote will happen but it’s expected this week. Right now, there is no vote set on the Menendez alternative, although that could change before the vote on Cruz takes place.
Cruz’s legislation would “require the imposition of sanctions with respect to entities responsible for the planning, construction, or operation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and their corporate officers,” according to a summary of the bill.
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