WASHINGTON – The Senate will take up legislation Thursday to end normal trade relations with Russia and ban the importation of its oil, ratcheting up the U.S. response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine amid reports of atrocities. Both bills have languished in the Senate.
“It's a big, big deal that we are finally getting them done," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday. “Now, I wish this could have happened sooner, but after weeks of talks with the other side, it's important that we have found a path forward."
It’s been three weeks since the House passed the trade suspension measure that paves the way for President Joe Biden to enact higher tariffs on certain Russian imports. At the time, the legislation was billed as sending a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies about the economic isolation Russia will face for invading Ukraine.
The House vote in mid-March came one day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Congress in a virtual speech that “new packages of sanctions are needed constantly every week until the Russian military machine stops."
“They cannot just go kill a bunch of people, destroy cities, kill women and children, and then go back and have business as usual,” Ukrainian-born U.S. Rep. Victoria Spartz, a Republican from Indiana, said as the trade bill was debated in the House.
Reports of civilians being tortured and killed in Ukraine, with streets on the outskirts of Kyiv being strewn with corpses, had some lawmakers this week questioning why the Senate had not yet taken action on the bill.
“What I’m telling the senators is that all this foot-dragging in the face of the atrocities that everybody saw this weekend is just really beyond imagination," said Sen. Ron Wyden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
House lawmakers concurred.
“It sends a message of weakness," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, on the Senate's inaction. “It seemed like a pretty bipartisan, easy thing to do, just like not importing Russia energy, so it's disappointing."
There is overwhelming support for suspending preferential trade treatment for Russia. But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has objected to speedy consideration of the bill over concerns that its language on who can be sanctioned for human rights abuses is too broad, leaving it ripe for abuse. He blocked a request for a voice vote on the bill, which requires consent from all 100 senators. Schumer opted to let senators work it out rather than chew up floor time to overcome the filibuster.
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said, practically speaking, the impact of the delay on the trade bill is minimal “because there's virtually no trade right now coming in from Russia." Still, he said passage is important.
“Messaging is important here and showing action is important," Cardin said. “You've got the Ukrainians on the battlefield every day. The least we can do is get these bills passed."
Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said the delay in the Senate was hard to explain. But he placed the onus on Schumer.
“I think part of it really is just having leadership in the Senate that is going to manage the floor and is willing to do what it takes to get this thing done," Thune said. “If this had been a priority, I think it would have been done."
Democrats counter that going the route Thune suggested requires dedicating precious floor time for a bill that passed 424-8 in the House.
Rep. Kevin Brady, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade, said it was important for Schumer to get senators together and get the bill passed.
“We've been watching these atrocities. America needs to weigh in now and stop funding the war," Brady said. “President Zelenskyy asked a month ago for this and here we are — still fussing around."
The House also passed the oil ban about a month ago. The bill would codify restrictions on Russian oil that Biden has already put in place through executive action.
Schumer said Putin needed to be held accountable for what he said were war crimes against Ukraine. He also said Putin was guilty of genocide.
“Formally revoking normal trade relations with Russia is precisely the right thing for the Senate to do because it will land another huge blow to Putin's economy," Schumer said. “It's a key part of any strategy for holding Putin accountable for his savage attacks on innocent civilians."