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Capitol Hill Responds to Horrors in Ukraine
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Capitol Hill Responds to Horrors in Ukraine

A growing chorus of lawmakers call Russian atrocities genocide as both chambers consider Russia legislation.

Good afternoon. It’s a busy week on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers are hoping to check off a few important to-do’s before they leave town for a two-week Easter and Passover recess. 

Congressional Response to Putin’s War Crimes

A growing number of members of Congress, ranging from House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik to progressive Rep. Raúl Grijalva, are now describing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine as genocide.

Their stronger rhetoric about the war comes after evidence of horrific violence against civilians in Bucha, a town outside Kyiv, became clear over the weekend. In videos, more than 20 corpses were seen lying about Bucha’s streets, massacred by Russian forces. Satellite imagery shows some of those bodies have been there for more than three weeks. In the same town, reports indicate hundreds of bodies have been recently buried in a mass grave. Ukrainian officials have also alleged widespread rape and torture in Bucha by Russian troops. The war crimes against civilians in Bucha aren’t a solitary incident: The city of Mariupol has seen shocking Russian attacks on civilians as well. With other parts of Ukraine isolated and unable to share information with the world, more brutality will likely surface in the future.

The lawmakers describing Putin’s actions as genocide—a high bar that usually takes years for the United States and international institutions to officially decide—align with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and several experts who have adopted that language. It is just one way members of Congress are responding to the revelations; they are also renewing calls for allied countries to ban Russian oil and gas imports, urging the White House to increase its military assistance to Ukraine, and emphasizing the need for the Senate to act quickly on a long-delayed bill to end Russia’s permanent normal trade relations with the United States. 

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal pointed out Monday that nearly a month has passed since the House approved a ban on imports of Russian energy products, and nearly three weeks have passed since House lawmakers sent a bill to the Senate ending Russia’s permanent normal trade status with the United States. 

“The Senate must consider and pass this legislation before breaking for recess at the end of the week,” Neal said.

But those bills have become the vehicle for debate over several related amendments, as we reported in Uphill on Friday. Senators hope to reach a deal this week to pass the measures, but they will have to go through the House again before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk.

House members, meanwhile, are expected to vote this week on legislation declaring that the Russian military under Putin has committed war crimes. These include the deliberate targeting of civilians; attacks on hospitals, schools, and other civilian infrastructure; indiscriminate bombings; unjustified destruction of property; unlawful deportations; and hostage-taking (among other crimes). 

The measure also states that the use of chemical weapons would constitute a war crime, and it includes language that the policy of the United States is to collect and preserve evidence related to war crimes and other atrocities for use in relevant courts and tribunals that prosecute those responsible for the crimes in the future. It also requires a report from the president within three months of enactment that details American efforts to collect evidence on war crimes in Ukraine and coordination with allies.

More than three dozen members of Congress are also urging the Biden administration to provide to Ukraine a broader array of weapons. My former colleague Jeremy Herb at CNN reported that Democratic Reps. Andy Kim and Jason Crow, alongside GOP Rep. Peter Meijer, sent a letter to President Biden on Monday calling for long-range surface-to-air missiles, fighter aircraft, and anti-ship missiles for Ukraine. 

“We recognize that the United States and its allies and partners have already provided substantial military aid, in response to the Russian invasion, including a portion of the $13.6 billion in emergency funds through the fiscal 2022 Omnibus Appropriations bill,” the lawmakers said. “However, Ukrainians are clear that more needs to be done for Ukraine to win this war.”

January 6 Panel Faces Tough Decisions

Nicholas Wu and Kyle Cheney at Politico published good reporting Monday about the January 6 committee’s next steps. Even as the panel has been building a criminal case against former President Donald Trump, some lawmakers and experts question whether a formal referral to the Justice Department is necessary—or if it would be productive.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a member of the committee, told Wu and Cheney a referral “doesn’t mean anything.” 

Additionally, some legal experts worry that Congress issuing a criminal referral of Trump could jeopardize any meritorious DOJ investigation by infusing it with the perception of politics.

“A formal criminal referral from Congress in this situation could backfire. The Justice Department’s charging decisions should not be influenced by political pressure, and that’s how this might look,” said Ronald Weich, a University of Baltimore law professor and former assistant attorney general in the Obama Justice Department. “A referral could make it harder for the Department to prosecute.”

“It would have no legal effect, just political ones,” echoed Randall Eliason, a George Washington University criminal law professor. “And Congress wouldn’t be telling the DOJ anything it doesn’t already know, or that it couldn’t tell the DOJ without a referral. So I still feel like the costs outweigh any benefits.”

Read the rest of the piece here.

Nature Break

 

On the Floor

The House is expected to consider a $55 billion restaurant and small business relief bill this week. The House will also vote on referring Dan Scavino and Peter Navarro to the Justice Department for criminal contempt of Congress. A full list of the bills the House is scheduled to debate this week is available here.

Senators are set to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Jackson’s nomination to a full Senate vote Monday after the panel deadlocked along party lines. All 11 Republicans on the committee voted against advancing her, but she is expected to win support from at least three Republicans when her nomination comes to a final vote. Sens. Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins have announced they will vote to confirm the judge.

Senate leaders are also aiming to pass a $10 billion coronavirus funding package this week. The deal will go toward the purchase of more vaccines and maintaining testing capabilities. It is less than half of the $22.5 billion the White House had requested earlier this year for addressing the pandemic. Lawmakers attempted to include roughly $15 billion for the pandemic response in the omnibus government spending deal passed last month, but it would have been funded by repurposing unspent aid to several states. Members of Congress from states that would be impacted by the move rejected the plan at the time. The $10 billion deal announced Monday would still rely on unspent pandemic aid money, but it will draw from different pools of funds instead of state and local assistance. Roll Call’s Lindsey McPherson has more details here.

Key Hearings 

  • A House Natural Resources subcommittee is meeting this morning to examine the bipartisan infrastructure law’s implementation regarding wildfire management and ecosystem restoration. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Foreign Affairs Committee is debating several Russia-related bills this morning. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Homeland Security Committee is hearing from experts today on securing critical infrastructure against Russian cyber threats. Information and livestream here.

  • Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee will meet Wednesday morning for a hearing on suicide prevention and mental health interventions in the Defense Department. Information and livestream here.

  • A House Energy and Commerce panel will meet Wednesday to examine gas prices. Representatives from Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and others are set to appear. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Administration Committee’s rescheduled hearing on stock trading reforms for members of Congress is now expected this Thursday morning. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Oversight subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties will meet Thursday morning on book bans in schools. Information and livestream here.

  • Members of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on water, oceans, and wildlife will hold a hearing Thursday afternoon on implementing a Russian seafood ban. Information and livestream here.

  • The Helsinki Commission will meet Thursday morning for a hearing on protecting Ukrainian refugees from human trafficking. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.