GOP grabs post-Trump upper hand in Moscow

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Donald Trump

What won’t happen, however, is an outright victory for the GOP. The White House is aggressively urging Democrats to reject Senator Ted Cruz’s bill that will financially ruin the pipeline known as Nord Stream 2, and Democrats are expected to block the legislation as early as Thursday.

But Republicans are eager to use the issue to their political advantage as President Joe Biden engages in thorny talks with Russia over its military build-up on the border with Ukraine.

Democrats have “just spent a tremendous amount of political capital to rally all of their people who don’t want to be in this position” to oppose the sanctions, said Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee . “I mean, that makes absolutely no sense.”

Biden and his national security deputies claim that Cruz’s bill would undermine their quest for unity with European allies against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere. But government lobbying against the Cruz Act, coupled with the Democrats’ counter-proposal, appears to Republicans as frantic maneuvering to avoid an embarrassing loss.

And the GOP’s approach has the backing of senior Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has publicly urged senators to support Cruz’s legislation. (Ukraine has long opposed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which bypasses its territory, and fears the energy project would strengthen Moscow’s position in Europe.)

Cruz crowed that “the White House is in an uproar. They are trying very hard to put political pressure on the Democrats.” The conservative Texan, who has been spearheading pipeline sanctions for months, added that the Biden administration’s strong response comes after the Democrats “spent five years with Donald Trump as president and shouted: ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’”.

In fact, the Biden administration is working hard to ensure there are as few Democratic defectors as possible when voting on the sanctions. Senior State Department officials briefed Democrats Monday night, and a trio of officials from the Defense, State and Treasury Departments came to the Capitol on Wednesday to persuade senators and advisers. The State Department also sent a memo to the Senate offices on the matter.

The Biden administration’s arguments seem to resonate with Democrats, even among those who have been most vocal in support of the need to sanction Nord Stream 2. Almost all Democrats have so far opposed Cruz’s approach, citing the need to allow Biden to engage in diplomacy with the US Kremlin over concerns he may invade Ukraine again in the coming days.

Democrats have also accused Cruz of abusing Senate rules to force a debate on his sanctions package. The Texas Republican secured a vote on his bill last month as part of a deal with Democratic leaders after Cruz blocked quick confirmation of dozens of Biden’s ambassador candidates.

The Biden administration faced bipartisan criticism last year when it decided to forego mandatory sanctions on the pipeline in a bid to restore ties with Germany, which supports the project as a way to bolster its natural gas resources. But the new federal government has since changed its position on the issue, agreeing to postpone final certification of Nord Stream 2 while Putin threatens to invade Ukraine.

Democrats had previously backed sanctions on the pipeline but are now claiming that the circumstances surrounding the issue have changed, requiring a change on their part as well.

In response to Cruz’s move, a large group of Democratic senators on Wednesday unveiled legislation that would impose harsh sanctions on Russia — including Nord Stream 2 — if Moscow invades its neighbor. The plan, Democrats say, preserves Biden’s ability to use the dormant pipeline as leverage to get Putin to back down.

“That’s the first and foremost reason I did it,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez (DN.J.), who introduced the counterproposal Wednesday, said in an interview. “We face an immediate challenge – the potential for a Russian invasion. So what is the better way to deter Russia?”

The clash between the two legislative courses on Russia this week may not break out along easy party lines. Democrats warn that Cruz’s bill would separate the US from European allies and undermine Biden’s quest for transatlantic unity in the face of Russian aggression. They say Cruz supports Biden’s failure and hopes to shore up his own presidential ambitions.

But even if Republicans blow up the Menendez-led effort as an attempt to provide political cover to give Democrats a chance to oppose Cruz’s bill while maintaining a tough stance on Russia, some of them might end up in favour voices. Sen. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) is among those in the GOP who have expressed openness about the severe sanctions mandated by Menendez’s bill, which lawmakers believe are warranted if Russia invades Ukraine.

“You could get 95 senators to vote for it, maybe 99,” added Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, of the Menendez proposal, which is backed by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “There is a view that this is being used to camouflage the Cruz vote, which I don’t see.”

Republicans would prefer to focus on the Democrats, who backed out of Cruz’s bill, noting that nearly all senators previously supported the very sanctions outlined in the legislation.

“The only thing that’s changed at this point is that instead of a Republican in the White House, there’s a Democrat in the White House,” Cruz said. “And a lot of Senate Democrats seem quite willing to put party loyalty above national security right now.”

The Senate GOP campaign arm is already using the vote to squeeze vulnerable Democrats who are up for re-election this year.

At least one of those Democrats, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, plans to support Cruz’s bill. But it’s unclear if other Democrats will join her, and Republicans concede it’s unlikely they’ll get the 60 votes needed to pass it.

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