As the conflict in Ukraine rages, Congress is trying to take legislative action in response

The sanctions agreement, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) told reporters on February 8, is “approaching and approaching” after weeks of negotiations.

Instead, the talks failed. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Told reporters the same day that President Biden had “all the necessary powers” and the Republican Party withdrew from the talks and introduced its own sanctions bill a week later.

When Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border on February 24, virtually all U.S. lawmakers condemned the invasion, but Congress as an institution did not take immediate action to respond.

In fact, five weeks later, Congress has not yet sent Biden a separate law that punishes Russia or helps Ukraine. Last month, lawmakers approved a $ 13.6 billion military and humanitarian aid package, but the law, which was included in a massive federal spending bill, became the exception that confirms the rule.

Efforts to ban Russian oil imports, lift trade preferences for Russia and Belarus, condemn Putin as a war criminal, and give the federal government more tools to fight Russian apparatchiks and oligarchs this year on Capitol Hill. Not so much a symbolic resolution condemning the invasion passed in both chambers, despite widespread bipartisan support for the Ukrainian cause and a distant request from President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The reasons for the inaction of the legislature are many, according to interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers, aides and observers. They begin with the day-to-day problems associated with running affairs on Capitol Hill, such as ego clashes, party politicking, and Senate rules that can complicate even simple matters. But they also include the long-term disappearance of the once-insistent role of Congress in foreign affairs and national security and the simultaneous intensification of political polarization around these issues.

While there is hope that the legislative congestion could break as early as next week, the raw facts of the situation have surprised some longtime foreign politicians who recall an era when lawmakers and presidents worked hand in hand across party lines during international crises.

“If not that, then what? If you can’t put your actions into passing legislation on something where there is so much unanimity, do you know when you will be able to do it? ” said Dan Dealer, a former aide to Richard Lugar, a longtime Republican senator from Indiana who died in 2019 who is now the political director of the Lugar Center, which focuses on global issues.

The old Washington saying that politics “stops at the water’s edge” has clearly disappeared since the heyday of the Cold War, Dealer added. , – he said, – and the President’s Party knows that at this time of declining Congressional powers in national security policy, that the President can achieve his, so they do not need to pass laws.

This dynamic has been fully revealed in recent months on Capitol Hill. In short, Democrats in Congress hated Bigfoot and undermined Biden as he embarked on a strategy to build a global coalition led by a more active NATO to respond to the Russian invasion. Republicans, meanwhile, have been determined to get Biden off the flank, saying his approach is weak and sluggish – some clearly see an opportunity to create a political wedge ahead of the November by-elections.

McConnell, for example, accused the Biden administration of encouraging Putin by withdrawing from Afghanistan and “inflicting blows” on Ukraine. Republican lawmakers lined up to demand that Biden do more and faster, and campaign pressure played a clear role in shaping the administration’s response.

But that rhetoric has been undermined by Republican maneuvers both past and present. Republicans are largely reluctant to reckon with the influence of President Donald Trump’s skeptical relationship with NATO or his infamous Zelensky ultimatum, threatening to abandon key defensive weapons unless he shares compromising and politically useful material about Biden Hunter’s son.

Most recently, many Republicans voted against a bill containing billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, complaining that it was attached to a much broader bill that finances the domestic programs they oppose. And for two weeks, Republican senators have delayed the speedy adoption of a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would raise tariffs on goods from Russia and Belarus, as well as re-authorize and expand federal law that allows the government to impose sanctions on foreign officials. corruption or human rights violations.

This, in turn, sparked sharp democratic attacks on the Republican Party’s stance on the Ukrainian crisis and added increasing pressure on Republican leaders to break the deadlock.

“I think a lot of them really want to help Ukraine, but they’re so used to confronting the Democratic president in everything and everything that they can’t figure out how to get out of their way,” said Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn). “There are times when both sides have to stand for the president of the United States. Democrats did it afterwards [the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks]. Republicans, by and large, don’t do that. “

Senator James E. Rish (Idaho), a senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview that the legislative stalemate was “the nature of the beast, unfortunately,” referring to any senator’s ability to quickly block legislative action. . “Other side issues, such as politics and people applying for positions, and things like that,” he said, “sometimes get in the way.”

When the House of Representatives bill on trade and sanctions was introduced to the Senate last month, it immediately met with objections from Senator Mike Krapo (Idaho), a senior Republican on the Senate’s influential finance committee, who was concerned that the bill did not include a ban Imports of Russian oil. Senate Democrats have agreed to reassure Krapo by postponing a separate oil law.

But then Senator Rand Paul (Respondent) objected to the part of the bill on human rights sanctions, arguing that the changes could make it too easy for the president to impose sanctions on a foreign leader who simply had unpopular views on abortion, sexuality or other social issues. . Lawmakers who developed the new language insisted that it would not yield anything like it, but Paul stayed on his own and reached an agreement to change the wording of the bill.

After the text of the bill was reopened, more than half a dozen other senators showed up to seek other amendments. This has hampered any hopes of passing the bill in the Senate, sending it back through the House of Representatives and putting it on Biden’s table before the start of the two-week break on Thursday.

“All 100 senators have the right to say no, I’m not going to do that until you sort out my issue,” Krapo said Thursday. “And there’s not just one or two problems.”

Although republican politics has largely caused the current congestion, democratic imperatives dictate which legislation in general is starting to move. For example, the bans on trade and oil bans simply codify orders that Biden has already implemented, and human rights elements – Magnitsky’s extension of the Global Law on Human Rights – concern sanctions that apply and are lifted solely by the president. .

More provocative legislation – such as a bipartisan resolution calling for Biden to supply Ukraine with MiG-29 aircraft under the control of NATO members – has been ignored by leaders of the Democratic Congress. This disappointed Republicans, who wanted to act much more aggressively by imposing sanctions on Russian officials and organizations that could not simply be lifted by order of the president.

This underlying philosophical clash sparked negotiations before the invasion: Democrats would disagree with congressional action to bind Biden if he seeks to emerge from the crisis.

The “Mother of All Sanctions” bill, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (DN.J.), aimed at destroying the Russian economy, was written to act like a sword of Damocles, and it comes into force only if if Russia wants to invade Ukraine. Rish’s GOP alternative – the European Inaccessible Territory Act or NYET – would impose immediate sanctions, including the effective abolition of a key gas pipeline owned by Russia, according to the theory that a blow to the nose would be a more effective deterrent for Putin.

In the end, no bill was passed, and Biden acted with allies after the Russian invasion to impose virtually all the sanctions envisioned by lawmakers. And as for most Democrats, that’s okay.

“We moved with incredible speed when needed,” said Senator Brian Schatz (Hawaii), citing $ 13.6 billion in aid. “But many of these bills concern the fact that the legislature is trying to involve itself in foreign policy in ways that are redundant with what the Biden administration and the international community are already doing. These are a lot of people who want to show their own leadership, and one of the reasons that these bills are not being passed is, in fact, not necessary for our response. ”

Even smaller, more focused accounts are struggling to gain traction. Last month, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning Russia’s alleged war crimes in Ukraine and calling for an international investigation, but it was not put to a vote in the House of Representatives. Other bills, such as Russia’s use of its gold reserves and another that allows the government to liquidate confiscated Russian assets and use proceeds to help Ukraine, have bipartisan sponsors but do not have an immediate path to becoming law.

Democrats, meanwhile, are in turmoil as Republicans have blocked quick confirmations of some candidates who will play key roles in responding to the conflict. For example, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), For example, objected Tuesday to Biden’s candidate for Pentagon logistics chief, demanding that the Senate first hold a hearing on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Prolonged legislative inaction has particularly annoyed a small bipartisan group of senators who have long been involved in Ukrainian relations and pressured their colleagues to overcome their guerrilla allegations and leave a clear imprint in Congress on the crisis.

“The opposition is governed at both ends of the political spectrum in a way that is difficult to reach an agreement,” said Senator Jeanne Shahin (DN.H.), who was banned from entering Russia in 2017 because of it. prolonged propaganda of tougher measures against Putin.

But if the conflict in Ukraine is now on a trajectory that will last months, if not years, Congress still has time to come together. Lester Manson, a former Republican chief of staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it was wise for lawmakers to give Biden a free hand while the crisis unfolded, but now is the time for them to define a more coherent and robust strategic policy. on the punishment of Russia and aid to Ukraine.

“Friends on both sides said the right things – it’s good, it’s important,” he said. “But we are approaching a time when Congress needs to show that it thinks long term. … It’s time to get together and show that there is a broad base of support for the hard line. “

Mariana Satamayor contributed to this report.

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