Democrats, Cruz set for showdown over Russian pipeline

Democrats, Cruz set for showdown over Russian pipeline

WASHINGTON (The Hill): Democrats are headed for a showdown with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over his bid to force the Biden administration’s hand over a Russian gas pipeline.

As part of a deal reached by Cruz and Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate will vote next week on legislation from the conservative firebrand to put sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will carry gas from Moscow to Germany.

Cruz needs help from 10 Democrats to get the bill through the Senate, and said he thinks his prospects for hitting that threshold are “good.” But Democrats are raising red flags over the bill, even though they’ve previously supported similar sanctions.

”I’ve been talking to a number of my colleagues, and they have raised some serious questions about the Cruz amendment. …It’s a little much,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, asked if 10 Democrats would support the bill.

Cruz’s legislation requires the administration to impose sanctions related to the pipeline within 15 days of the bill becoming law. But a big sticking point for Democrats, raised by senators who spoke to The Hill, are restrictions on Biden’s ability to waive the sanctions, including the ability for Congress to vote to reinstate the penalties if they are waived.

“I’ve been opposed to Nord Stream 2. I still am opposed to Nord Stream 2. There’s some things though in the Cruz amendment that are unprecedented. That gives me a pause,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), a senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) noted that the Foreign Relations Committee, which he serves on with Cruz, had been “pretty uniformly against Nord Stream 2” and in support of sanctions but “the question is what are the conditions, does the executive get the ability to waive sanctions?”

The vote could be politically awkward for Democrats, forcing them to pick between supporting a president they align with politically or cracking down on a pipeline they oppose even if they disagree with Cruz’s tactics. Cruz has also opened the door to releasing part of his blockade on Biden’s nominees if his bill passes the Senate.

The Biden administration previously waived sanctions on the pipeline’s project company Nord Stream 2 AG, a subsidiary of the Russian-owned company Gazprom. Voting for Cruz’s amendment would effectively be supporting nixing Biden’s decision.

Democrats have faced pressure from the Biden administration and European allies to reject slapping financial penalties on the pipeline.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken previously lobbied Democrats to squash Cruz’s proposal last year when he offered it as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a sweeping defense policy bill.

Blinken, during a speech this week, argued that the pipeline could be used as a check on Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, where Moscow has amassed troops along the border.

“This pipeline does not have gas flowing through it at present and if Russia renews its aggression toward Ukraine, it would certainly be difficult to see gas flowing through it in the future,” Blinken said.

Germany is unlikely to certify the pipeline for operation in the first half of the year, according to the head of the federal authority for gas and infrastructure, Reuters reported, citing regulation requirements not yet met. 

Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department, added that the administration is working with members of Congress and European allies “on a package of sanctions … that maximizes the potential costs to Russia if Moscow does continue with aggression against Ukraine.”

Underlining the complicated diplomatic dance the White House is undertaking, the vote will coincide with diplomatic summits next week with Russia and other partners to address and tamp down the tension on Ukraine’s border. Russia has amassed nearly 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, prompting fears of an invasion.

Kaine, who said he is still reviewing Cruz’s legislation, acknowledged that the Biden administration was worried about transatlantic tensions at a precarious moment, but noted that both a new German government and heightened Russian aggression could “change the dynamic a little bit.”

“I want to hear what the administration position is, but President Obama was a friend and I voted for things he didn’t like. We do our job, and then the president gets to do his job. …If he really doesn’t like what we do he can veto it,” he said.

The Nord Stream 2 pipeline has sparked a wide, bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill over concerns that it only bolsters Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand over Europe.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), for example, recently co-authored an op-ed with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) urging the Biden administration to “seriously reconsider the imposition of [Nord Stream 2] sanctions.”

The House also previously voted to approve Nord Stream 2 sanctions as part of its defense policy bill. But the provisions were dropped from the final House-Senate agreement.

If Democrats block his bill Cruz is already signaling that he’ll weaponize a “no” vote as Democrats being soft on Russia.

“Virtually every Democrat has voted for sanctions on Nord Stream 2 multiple times. If this were a vote on the merits it would be unanimous or nearly unanimous. There are multiple Democrats who have told me they are going to vote for it, or they are strongly considering voting for it,” Cruz said.

Cruz added that supporting his bill “should be an easy vote,” before offering a likely preview of how he’ll characterize a defeat of the legislation.

“Each Democrat is going to have to make a choice,” he said, “whether their partisan loyalty to the White House is greater than their willingness to stand up to Russia and stop Putin’s aggression.”

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