Congress finally came to grips this week with one simple fact about Russia’s war in Ukraine: the U.S. is in it for the long haul.
After weeks of delays, the Senate and House nearly unanimously passed legislation to isolate Moscow from the global economy in ways that some acknowledge could become permanent. It’s also the first time since Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine that lawmakers have sent sanctions measures to President Joe Biden’s desk.
Even though they were staring down a two-week recess, lawmakers aren’t crediting a magic deal or a skilled negotiator with breaking the logjam. Instead, they’re pointing to a shifting belief that Ukraine can actually win the war, not simply hold off the Russians, and that the U.S. ally will need months or even years of U.S. help to do it.
In many ways, Thursday’s coming-together underscored a shift in Congress’ posture toward the conflict, which has seen an underpowered Ukrainian military shock the world by driving Russians out of major cities.
After approving nearly $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine last month, Congress asserted its authority on the policy front with legislation that severely restricts the White House’s ability to welcome Russia back into the international community. Within minutes of each other, both chambers passed legislation that revokes normal trade relations with Russia, and a separate bill that bans Russian oil and gas imports.
“The most imminent threat to our security, I believe, is [China]. But obviously you can’t ignore a guy who has a bunch of tactical nuclear weapons and who sort of rips his mask off and exposes the kind of criminal that he is,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of Putin. “This isn’t just a one-off…. This is going to be a longer-term proposition.”
Cornyn, who was intimately involved in the negotiations, helped lead unanimous Senate passage Wednesday night of a bill resurrecting a World War II-era weapons program that was seen as crucial in defeating Nazi Germany. The proposal, which lasted for four years during that war and is known as Lend-Lease, allows the U.S. to quickly send weapons and other general supplies to Ukraine without extra bureaucratic hurdles.
That the new measure cleared the upper chamber without opposition is a sign of lawmakers’ belief that the U.S. needs to devote resources to the conflict for longer than any of them envisioned. And sending the other two bills to the president’s desk was a significant statement of Congress’ authority over a slate of sanctions against Russia that, until this point, the Biden administration was managing largely on its own.
“It’s important to reinforce the steps the administration has taken and show the rest of the world we’re united around these steps and looking at stronger and more permanent measures,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Lawmakers have mostly deferred to the White House to implement sanctions and other punitive measures against Russia — many of which have been done in coordination with NATO countries and other allies. But members of both parties urged congressional leaders in recent weeks to force the Biden administration to do more, a difficult prospect in a deeply divided Congress.
While the Ukrainians have demonstrated their will and ability to fight, they’ve also been propped up significantly by the U.S. and other NATO partners, which have sent billions of dollars in weapons and humanitarian assistance in a bid to help push back the Russians and ensure that they don’t infringe on NATO territory.
“It sends such a strong united message to our allies and adversaries we are serious about this, we mean business, we are in it to help Ukraine win it,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said of Thursday’s votes. “More and more members both on the left and right are hearing from their constituents overwhelming emotional support for Ukraine, and they are responding in kind.”
Lawmakers were reeling over images that emerged last weekend showing Ukrainian civilians in mass graves and lying dead in the streets with their hands bound after apparently being tortured, prompting allegations that Putin’s forces are committing war crimes.
“No nation whose military is committing war crimes deserves free-trade status with the United States,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “No vile thug like Putin deserves to stand as an equal with the leaders of the free world.”
The House approved the trade sanctions and oil embargo last month with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, but the bills languished for three weeks in the upper chamber as senators raised objections to moving quickly on the legislation. Senate leaders made only minor changes to the House-passed bills, and the House swiftly reapproved both pieces of legislation later Thursday with more than 400 votes in support of each.
Some lawmakers argued that it was no longer necessary for Congress to act on the oil ban given that Biden had already done so via executive order last month, but proponents believed it was important to codify the punishment and give lawmakers a say in the matter — particularly after Biden dragged his feet on imposing the ban in the first place. The legislation also allows Congress to vote to re-impose the ban if, down the road, lawmakers are uncomfortable with an executive branch plan to allow the purchases of Russian oil again.
“It’s important to recognize this legislation is not redundant,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who led the effort in the upper chamber. “It’s ensuring substantive steps will be taken so that the sanctions stay in with some level of reliability.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said it was “a message to our European allies that we stand with them as they attempt to establish a Russia-free energy environment.” European nations rely heavily on energy sources from Russia and have been reluctant to impose similar bans on Russian oil and gas, although the bloc is signaling that could change as the war worsens.
The twin pieces of legislation stalled in the Senate for almost a month mostly due to objections from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who took issue with broad language in the trade sanctions bill centering on human-rights sanctions. Setting up an immediate vote in the Senate requires consent from all 100 senators, and Schumer didn’t want to take up valuable floor time as he pushed to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court before the recess, along with other nominees.
Republicans said Schumer didn’t have his priorities straight.
“Part of it is just having leadership in the Senate who knows how to manage the floor and is willing to do what it takes to get this thing done,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune said. “They’ve been dillydallying around, wasting time on sub-cabinet nominations for the last few weeks.”
The House has been much more active than the Senate when it comes to Ukraine-related legislation. The lower chamber was weeks ahead on the trade sanctions and the oil ban, and it has since advanced several bills aimed at helping Ukraine and further isolating Russia, fueling angst among House members who want to see more legislation sent to Biden’s desk.
“We’re in the middle of a war,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks lamented. “This is serious business. They don’t have time to be lollygagging. That should not happen in a time of crisis. We have found ways on the House side to work together.”