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Senate Takes Up Legislation on Nord Stream 2 Sanctions
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Senate Takes Up Legislation on Nord Stream 2 Sanctions

The White House is pushing Democrats to vote against the measure.

Good afternoon from Capitol Hill, where both chambers are back in session this week. With a surge in coronavirus cases, it doesn’t feel like a typical work period, though—about 21 percent of House members voted remotely on Monday.

Nord Stream 2 Sanctions Up in the Senate

Democrats are working to defeat a Republican effort to punish entities involved with the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, arguing the move would undercut President Joe Biden’s negotiating hand amid high-profile talks with Russia.

The maneuvering will play out in the Senate over the next few days, with members feeling a palpable sense of urgency as up to 100,000 Russian troops have amassed near the border of Ukraine in recent weeks. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer previously agreed to allow a vote on the bill, sponsored by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, by the end of the week in exchange for ending a delay on the confirmation of dozens of diplomatic nominees.

The GOP legislation would require the president to impose penalties on those involved in the “planning, construction, or operation” of Nord Stream 2 no later than 15 days after its passage. It also gives Congress a pathway to reimpose sanctions should Biden waive them. Opponents of the pipeline, which stretches 750 miles under the Baltic Sea, say it would tighten Moscow’s grip on key U.S. allies and undercut Ukraine’s access to transit fees. 

To pass the Senate, the measure needs support from all 50 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Some Democrats have indicated they will vote for it, such as Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. “We need to be strong in support of Ukraine against Russian interference and aggression,” she told CNN last night. Many Senate Democrats have voted for sanctions on the $12 billion project in the past.

But the White House is hoping to keep the number of Democratic defectors under 10. The State Department sent officials to Capitol Hill last night to urge undecided Senate Democrats to vote against the measure. 

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, was involved in organizing the meeting. He described Cruz’s bill as “stale” in a series of tweets Monday night.

 

Democrats are attempting to avert passage of the measure by offering their own bill, which would punish Russia only if Russian leader Vladimir Putin launches a new offensive into Ukraine. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, the sponsor of the Democratic bill, told reporters Monday night that he doesn’t expect a vote on his legislation this week, but he will be circulating it among Senate offices to add cosponsors.

“This is a better way to achieve the goal of not having Russia invade Ukraine,” Menendez argued. 

Menendez was one of the most vocal Democratic critics of Biden’s move in May to lift sanctions designed to delay Nord Stream 2’s completion. At the time, Biden cited a desire to “rebuild relationships” with European allies following strain under the Trump administration, but many Republicans dismissed the move as a capitulation to Putin at the expense of Ukraine. 

Menendez aired his disapproval of Biden’s waiver for sanctions on the project: “The administration has said that the pipeline is a bad idea and that it is a Russian malign influence project,” he said last May. “I share that sentiment, but fail to see how today’s decision will advance U.S. efforts to counter Russian aggression in Europe.”

He reiterated his opposition to Nord Stream 2 in August, alongside legislators from eight European countries. They made the case that completion of the pipeline would strengthen Russia’s hand in Europe, endanger national security among European Union member states and the United States, “and threaten the already precarious security and sovereignty of Ukraine.”

But his calculus has seemingly shifted with Putin’s troop build-up.

“If you want to succeed in getting Russia not to invade, you have to give it consequences beforehand,” Menendez told reporters Monday night. “Let’s just say that you could kill Nord Stream, which I don’t think will be done because it’s got to get a vote in the House, got to be signed by the president, he’s not going to sign it. So it’s the status quo, at the end of the day. But even if you kill Nord Stream, Putin will say, ‘OK, I can’t get Nord Stream anyhow, so why shouldn’t I invade?’”

Those comments align with the outlook publicly touted by Biden administration officials, who maintain that withholding the sanctions, contingent on good behavior by the Kremlin, returns much needed bargaining power to the United States and its allies. 

“The pipeline does not have gas flowing through it at present, and if Russia renews its aggression toward Ukraine it would certainly be difficult to see gas flowing through it in the future,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.

“Some may see Nord Stream 2 as leverage that Russia can use against Europe,” he added at a joint press conference with German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock. “In fact, it’s leverage for Europe to use against Russia.”

It’s unclear how far the administration’s message will go in preventing Democrats from helping Republicans pass the sanctions bill this week. It is clear, at least, that the argument hasn’t done much to convince Republicans.

“I don’t buy that,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a hawkish South Carolina Republican, told reporters Tuesday.

“I think the leverage is to crush the Russian economy for the threat of invasion,” he said.

Sen. Roger Wicker, a member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, told The Dispatch that “Congress should immediately consider and pass strong sanctions on the Russian pipeline, irrespective of how Russia proceeds with Ukraine.”

Construction of the pipeline is complete, but Germany’s energy regulator has temporarily suspended certification of the project. The new German government is divided for now about whether to move forward with the conduit.

Potential American sanctions on the businesses involved have been the subject of a fierce lobbying campaign over the past five years, per OpenSecrets

Foreign companies partnering on Nord Stream 2 spent more than $14.2 million since 2017 when Donald Trump became president and shortly after the pipeline’s construction kicked off. More than $7.4 million of that lobbying against sanctions and other issues related to the project came since the start of 2020 with $3 million of that spent in the first three quarters of 2021. 

Despite the resistance, there has been broad support in Congress for taking action against the project. The House included an amendment requiring sanctions on those involved with it in its version of the annual defense authorization measure last year, but that language didn’t make it into the final legislation.

In a public appeal to the Senate’s Democratic members on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shared a link to Cruz’s bill and thanked Schumer for bringing it to a vote. Kyiv stands to lose the most from the operation of the pipeline designed to bypass Ukraine and bar it from collecting transit fees. American opponents on both sides of the aisle have also voiced concern that the conduit would increase European allies’ energy dependence on Moscow, particularly amid the continent’s unfolding energy crisis. 

Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rejected Democratic leadership’s position on sanctions in a statement to The Dispatch this week. 

“Nord Stream 2 must be stopped immediately, not only if Russia launches a further invasion of Ukraine,” he said. “Waiting, as this administration and some in Congress have proposed, seriously risks handing Putin another geopolitical weapon to wield over Ukraine and our European allies and partners.”

Worth Reading

Don Wolfensberger, a former staff director for the House Rules Committee, wrote in The Hill last week about the overwhelmingly closed process the House has used for debating legislation in recent sessions of Congress.

“The House has become much more partisan and more closed to broad member participation in the legislative process,” he writes. “This has two destructive consequences: (1) members are feeling increasingly marginalized and irrelevant due to rote party-voting pressures in committee and on the floor; and (2) their constituents are turned-off by all the partisan bickering and gridlock. Taken together, this is a major democratic disconnect.”

Wolfensberger keeps a chart of the different kinds of rules used for considering legislation in the House, which has now been updated for the 117th Congress. See the numbers here.

On the Floor

The House is scheduled to vote on legislation this week to extend NASA’s ability to lease underused facilities to the private sector, academic institutions, state and local governments, and other federal agencies. NASA brings in millions of dollars from the leasing authorities, money that has been used in the past for repairs and facility improvements.

The chamber is also expected to consider legislation this week to expand access to veterans’ education benefits. 

The Senate is considering executive nominees this week, including Alan Davidson to be assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and Amitabha Bose to be administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Key Hearings

  • Officials from the Justice Department and the FBI appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning to discuss the domestic terrorism threat, a year after January 6. Information and video here.

  • CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH, and other officials testified before the Senate health committee on coronavirus variants this morning. Information and video here.

  • The Senate Banking Committee held a confirmation hearing this morning for Jerome Powell’s nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chair. Information and video here.

  • The House Appropriations Committee held a hearing this morning on the security of the Capitol campus since the January 6, 2021 attack. Several officials responsible for protecting the Capitol will testify. Information and video here.

  • The House Agriculture Committee will meet Wednesday morning to examine the implications of electric vehicle investments for agriculture and rural America. Information and livestream here

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.