The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia trade bill stalls in Congress as senators quarrel over sanctions

Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, seen during a GOP news conference Feb. 16 on Capitol Hill, has objected to a Democratic request to immediately approve a House-passed bill to end normal trade relations with Russia, saying it should include language banning Russian oil imports. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A bill that would add Russia and Belarus to a short list of pariah states that do not enjoy preferential U.S. trade status has stalled in the Senate as lawmakers spar over whether to attach other measures, such as a ban on Russian oil and gas imports.

The trade bill passed the House on a 424-to-8 vote last week, and Democrats are pushing to quickly pass it in the Senate so President Biden can sign it as he meets with key allies in Europe later this week to strategize further responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It is so important we show unity right now [as] President Biden meets with our European allies,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in floor remarks Wednesday. “Swift Senate action, combining Democrats and Republicans with one voice supporting [an end to Russia’s trade preferences] would do just that.”

House votes to strip Russia of trade status, but Congress treads carefully on Ukraine crisis

But Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho), the top Republican on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, objected to Schumer’s request to immediately pass the House bill — citing the other chamber’s decision to drop language on banning Russian energy imports that had previously been included in a handshake agreement between key congressional leaders.

“None of this is controversial, and all of it is necessary,” Crapo said Tuesday, calling the trade and energy bills “complementary.”

Both the trade sanctions and the energy import ban have already been the subject of executive action by Biden. But many in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, have pushed for congressional action to codify Biden’s orders and show bipartisan comity in the quest to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his decision to invade Ukraine.

But accord has been hard to come by in recent months. After moments of talks, Democrats and Republicans could not come together on a Russia sanctions bill ahead of the late-February invasion — a package that some senators believed would show Western resolve and perhaps deter Putin from further action.

Since the invasion, lawmakers of both parties have pushed Biden to do more to deliver military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and take a series of escalating steps to punish Russia. A $13.6 billion Ukrainian aid package was included in a vast spending bill that Biden signed into law earlier this month.

But bills to crack down on Russian trade, ban its energy imports, impose new restrictions on U.S. companies doing business in Russia, demand war-crimes investigations, transfer MiG jets and other materiel to Ukraine, and other measures have yet to reach Biden’s desk because of political and policy tussles.

A deal, however, appeared to be within reach Wednesday. After Schumer and Crapo sparred on the floor, the two men agreed to keep negotiating in hopes of sealing a deal to advance the trade and energy bills before the Senate finishes its business for the week on Thursday.

The energy import ban, like the trade bill, had broad bipartisan support in the House. But some senators, including Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin III (D-W-Va.), raised concerns about language in the House bill that would delay the ban for 45 days — potentially giving importers more time to arrange and settle transactions.

Crapo on Wednesday said he would agree to drop that provision to speed up action on the energy ban legislation, which he said would “demonstrate to the Ukrainian people and our NATO allies that Congress is committed to cutting off Russia’s funding for its war effort” and potentially persuade U.S. allies who are more dependent on Russian oil and gas to follow suit.

“I’m willing to make these concessions to get this done,” he said. “My view is that we should act quickly.”

But he warned that other senators could have requests of their own for additions or subtractions that could obstruct a deal. Passing the legislation this week would require the consent of all 100 senators.

One potential complication is that the House trade bill includes a permanent expansion of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a law that gives the U.S. government broad authority to impose sanctions on those found to have engaged in human rights abuses or serious acts of corruption.

A handful of House conservatives cited that provision — which expands applicability of the Magnitsky law from those engaging in “gross” human rights violations to merely “serious” violations — in opposing the legislation last week. One lawmaker, Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.), said the change could give a president the power to “threaten other countries to turn on their Christian heritage and change their laws to align with the views of the current White House.”

But Crapo said he supported its passage, and no senator has publicly objected. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Wednesday that allowing the Magnitsky Act, named after an anti-corruption crusader who died in a Russian prison, to expire would “send exactly the wrong message at the most critical time” and called for immediate passage of the extension.

“Look, there are burned bodies in the streets of Ukraine. There are mass graves to bury the dead. There are Ukrainians who are melting snow in order to drink water to survive. So it’s truly mind-boggling that we cannot get this legislation passed,” said Menendez.