As Ukraine conflict rages, Congress struggles to legislate a response

Five weeks after Russia invaded its western neighbor, lawmakers have delivered money but are sputtering on other efforts.

The Washington Post
April 2, 2022
Tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border in early February, Western intelligence officials warned of an imminent invasion and key senators worked furiously to assemble a sanctions package that they hoped would deter Russian President Vladimir Putin — or at least demonstrate bipartisan U.S. resolve to oppose him.
A sanctions deal, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters on Feb. 8, was “getting closer and closer” after weeks of negotiations.

Instead, the talks fell apart. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters that same day that President Biden had “all the authority he needs,” and the GOP withdrew from talks and introduced its own sanctions bill a week later.

When Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border on Feb. 24, virtually every U.S. lawmaker condemned the invasion, but Congress as an institution took no immediate action to respond.

Efforts to pass measures banning Russian oil imports, removing trade preferences for Russia and Belarus, denouncing Putin as a war criminal and giving the federal government more tools to go after Russian apparatchiks and oligarchs have all stalled on Capitol Hill this year. Not so much as a symbolic resolution condemning the invasion has passed both chambers despite the broad bipartisan support for the Ukrainian cause and a long-distance plea from President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The reasons for the legislative inaction are myriad, according to interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers, aides and observers. They start with the workaday challenges of getting things done on Capitol Hill, such as clashes of egos, partisan politicking, and Senate rules that can work to complicate even simple matters. But they also involve a long-term withering of a once-assertive congressional role in foreign affairs and national security, and a concomitant increase in political polarization around those issues.

“If not this, then what? If you can’t get your act together on legislating on something where there is so much unanimity, you know, when can you ever do it?” said Dan Diller, a former aide to Richard Lugar, a longtime Republican senator from Indiana who died in 2019, who is now policy director of the Lugar Center, which focuses on global issues.

The old Washington adage that politics “stops at the water’s edge” has clearly faded in relevance since its Cold War heyday, added Diller: “It’s simpler for the opposition party to sit on the sidelines and criticize on cable news or whatever than it is to put their ideas on the line,” he said, “and the party of the president knows in this time of reduced congressional authority in national security policy that the president can get his or her way, so they don’t have to legislate.”

McConnell, for instance, has accused the Biden administration of emboldening Putin by withdrawing from Afghanistan and having “pulled their punches” on Ukraine. Republican lawmakers have lined up to demand that Biden do more, and faster, and the pressure campaign has played a clear role in shaping the administration’s response.

But that rhetoric has been undermined by GOP maneuvers both past and present. Republicans have been largely unwilling to reckon with the impact of President Donald Trump’s skeptical relations with NATO or his infamous ultimatum to Zelensky, threatening to withhold key defensive arms unless he shared compromising and politically useful material about Biden’s son Hunter.

More recently, scores of Republicans voted against the bill containing the billions of dollars in Ukraine aid, complaining it was attached to a much broader bill that funded domestic programs they oppose. And for two weeks GOP senators have held up quick passage of a House-passed bill that would raise tariffs on goods from Russia and Belarus while also reauthorizing and expanding a federal law allowing the government to impose sanctions on foreign officials who engage in serious corruption or human rights abuses.

“I think many of them really do want to help Ukraine, but they are so used to opposing a Democratic president on everything and anything that they can’t figure out how to get out of their own way,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “There are crisis moments where both parties have to get behind the president of the United States. Democrats did that after [the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks]. Republicans, by and large, are not doing that.”

Sen. James E. Risch (Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview that the legislative stalemate was “the nature of the beast, unfortunately” — referring to the ability of any one senator to block quick action on legislation. “Other side issues, like politics and people running for office and those types of things,” he said, “sometimes get in the way of the objective.”

But then Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) objected to the portion of the bill dealing with human rights sanctions, arguing that the changes could make it too easy for a president to slap sanctions on a foreign leader who simply had unpopular views about abortion, sexuality or other social issues. The lawmakers who crafted the new language insisted that it would do nothing of the sort, but Paul held his ground and won an agreement to change the wording of the bill.

With the text of the legislation now reopened, more than a half-dozen other senators have emerged to seek other amendments. That has complicated any hopes of passing the bill through the Senate, sending it back through the House and putting it on Biden’s desk before a two-week recess begins Thursday.

While it is largely Republican politicking that has created the present logjam, Democratic imperatives are dictating just what sort of legislation even starts moving in the first place. The trade and oil-ban bills, for instance, simply codify executive orders that Biden has already implemented, and the human rights elements — an expansion of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act — deal with sanctions that are applied and withdrawn solely by the president.

More-provocative pieces of legislation — such as a bipartisan resolution calling on Biden to supply Ukraine with MiG-29 jets under NATO-member control — have been ignored by Democratic congressional leaders. That has frustrated Republicans who have wanted to act much more aggressively, slapping sanctions on Russian officials and organizations that cannot simply be withdrawn by presidential fiat.

Senate Democrats, with White House backing, unveil Russia sanctions bill

That underlying philosophical clash sparked the breakdown of the preinvasion negotiations: Democrats would not accept congressional action that would bind Biden as he seeks to navigate the crisis.

In the end, neither bill passed, and Biden acted in concert with allies after the Russian invasion to impose virtually all of the sanctions lawmakers had contemplated. And, as far as most Democrats are concerned, that is just fine.

“We’ve moved with incredible speed when it was necessary,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), citing the $13.6 billion in aid. “But a lot of these other bills are about the legislative branch trying to insert itself in foreign policy in ways that are redundant with what the Biden administration and the international community is already doing. This is a lot of people wanting to display their own leadership, and one of the reasons that these bills are not passing is they are not, in fact, essential for our response.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have seethed as Republicans have blocked quick confirmations for some nominees who would play key roles in the response to the conflict. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), for instance, objected Tuesday to Biden’s nominee to head the Pentagon’s logistics branch, demanding that the Senate first hold a hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal.

The ongoing legislative inaction has especially exasperated a small bipartisan group of senators who have long been engaged in Ukrainian relations and have pressed their colleagues to get over their partisan hang-ups and leave a clear congressional imprint on the response to the crisis.

“The opposition has been driven by both ends of the political spectrum in a way that has made it hard to get an agreement,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who was barred from entering Russia in 2017 due to her long advocacy for tougher measures against Putin.

But with the Ukraine conflict now on a trajectory to continue for months, if not years, Congress still has time to get its act together. Lester Munson, a former Republican staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that it was reasonable for lawmakers to give Biden a free hand as the crisis unfolded but that the time has now come for them to set a more coherent and durable strategic policy on punishing Russia and aiding Ukraine.

“Members of both parties have been saying the right stuff — that’s good, that’s important,” he said. “But we’re getting about to the time where Congress needs to show that it’s thinking long-term. … It’s time to come together and show that there is a broad base of support for a tough line here.”

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.