Senate talks on Russia sanctions break down after Biden lauds Congress amid tensions with Moscow


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Democratic Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez blasted Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday for putting forward a “partisan Russia sanctions” proposal, just minutes after President Biden praised lawmakers for their unity in deterring Moscow from invading Ukraine.

After weeks of stalled negotiations on Mr. Menendez’s “mother-of-all sanctions” package aimed at threatening Russia with sanctions if it invades, Senate Republicans on Tuesday put forward a counter-proposal that would immediately stop construction on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline and slap instant penalties on Russian banks and officials.

The proposal was met with staunch opposition from Democrats. 

“It’s a shame that Senate Republicans have decided to choose partisan posturing instead of working to reach consensus on a comprehensive bipartisan proposal that would demonstrate a united front to deter [Russian President Vladimir] Putin from re-invading Ukraine,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement Tuesday. “A partisan victory is not worth a message of division from Washington, which only benefits Putin.”

Mr. Menendez of New Jersey signaled the latest breakdown in talks just minutes after Mr. Biden’s televised address, in which the president warned that a Russian invasion “is still very much a possibility,” while praising lawmakers’ bipartisan resolve in the face of the Kremlin’s aggression.

“This is a cause that unites Republicans and Democrats,” Mr. Biden said in his address. “And I want to thank the leaders and members of both parties, who have forcefully spoken out in defense of our most basic, most bipartisan, most American principals.”

Negotiations in Congress have largely broken down over the timing of when sanctions would take place. Republicans insist that Russia should face severe consequences before an invasion, while Democrats’ original proposal was to guarantee a bevy of sanctions after an attack.

On Tuesday, Republicans proposed the immediate stoppage of construction on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline into Germany, and mandatory sanctions on the pipeline if Russia should invade.

Mr. Biden waived Trump-era sanctions on the pipeline last summer, putting Democrats in an awkward spot as they scramble to remain tough on Russia without embarrassing the president.

The Republican proposal also would impose sanctions on Russian banks and members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle before a further Russian incursion into Ukraine, and would provide additional military aid to Ukraine.

The bill would also allow certain committee leaders in Congress to force a determination from Mr. Biden on whether Russian aggression against Ukraine “fulfills conditions to trigger sanctions.”

Several key Republicans in the House, including the top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees, rallied behind the proposal, deemed the Never Yielding Europe’s Territory (NYET) Act.

“Rather than simply restating authorities the president already has, the NYET Act takes immediate action to permanently stop Nord Stream 2, sends a powerful deterrent message, imposes heavy economic and military costs on Russia, strengthens U.S. allies and partners, and supports Ukraine via new authorities, funds, and tools,” said Sen. James E. Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

But Mr. Menendez is not embracing the proposal, and the breakdown in talks could mean that Congress will come up empty-handed as Russia remains on the brink of war.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week that Mr. Biden has all the authority needed to immediately pass sanctions to deter the Kremlin.

“I’m not sure how relevant it is in the short term, because the sanctions that the administration would impose, they can already do without a bill,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican.

Still, both Mr. Risch and Mr. Menendez say a bill would be an important display of unity from Congress.

“That is why I have worked for weeks to convince Republicans to join us in legislating something that can deter Putin, and why I will continue pushing for my Republican colleagues to reconsider this path before it’s too late for the people of Ukraine,” Sen. Menendez said. “There is still hope for a diplomatic breakthrough, and there is still time to reach a bipartisan agreement so the U.S. Congress can help impose the swiftest and harshest of responses for any unprovoked, unjustified actions by Russia.”

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