Senate

This week: Democrats return to Russia tensions, looming Supreme Court fight

Congress is returning from a one-week break facing an increasingly full plate, as they juggle President Biden’s legislative agenda, looming deadlines and growing tensions with Russia. 

Democrats are facing a mash up of competing priorities: They have 15 working days to prevent a mid-February government shutdown. Senators will be able to discuss their strategy over Biden’s forthcoming pick to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer, which he has pledged to make by the end of the month, in person for the first time since the announcement. 

Meanwhile, progressives are trying to ramp up pressure on the party to quickly revive Build Back Better, a sweeping climate and social spending package, and pass it by March 1 as both the White House and Democratic leadership sidestep setting a hard deadline. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who put the House-passed version in a legislative deep freeze, indicated late last week that people were reaching out to him about a path forward. But he noted that he hadn’t yet sat down with anyone and pointed to several other priorities including reining in inflation, the coronavirus pandemic and growing international tensions over Ukraine, where Russia has placed an estimated 100,000 troops near the border.

Lawmakers are expected to dig into the growing tensions with Russia this week. 

Senior administration officials will brief senators on Thursday, a Senate aide confirmed to The Hill. The administration is also expected to hold briefings with leadership and committee staff this week. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also requested an all-members briefing for the House. 

The briefings come as the administration has warned about the potential for a Russian incursion into Ukraine, though officials have said that they don’t believe Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a final decision on an invasion.

Biden is expected to send troops soon to Eastern Europe, with the Pentagon placing up to 8,500 on alert for a possible deployment.

Senators are close to an agreement on a sanctions bill that would include sanctions that could be placed on Russia now, as well as slap severe financial penalties on Moscow if it invades Ukraine. The bill is also expected to provide additional lethal aid to Ukraine. 

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) — the chairman and ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, respectively — indicated during a joint CNN interview on Sunday that they were close to an agreement that could be finalized this week. 

“I would describe it as we are on the 1-yard line, and hopefully we will be able to conclude successfully,” Menendez told host Dana Bash, describing the negotiations as an “intensive effort.” 

In addition to Menendez and Risch, GOP Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), John Cornyn (Texas) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Ben Cardin (Md.) are involved in the talks. 

One unresolved issue as of Sunday was the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport natural gas from Russia to Germany. Senate Democrats recently blocked legislation from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was supported by Risch, to place sanctions on businesses related to the pipeline and let Congress force a vote on reinstating the penalties if Biden waived them.  

“We’re working on that,” Risch said. “That’s going to be the last t crossed, i dotted before we put the ball across the finish line.”

China competitiveness bill 

The House will vote this week on legislation aimed at countering China’s economic influence. 

The bill, introduced last week, is designed to boost U.S. innovation, promote the domestic production of scarce computer chips and thaw the supply chain freeze that’s led to skyrocketing inflation. 

The legislation is meant to be the House’s answer to China competitiveness legislation that passed the Senate last year with GOP support. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced late last year that the House had agreed to go to conference to work out their competing versions, meaning even once the House’s bill passes this week it still faces additional hurdles. 

Top House Republicans have also panned the bill, raising questions about how much GOP support it will get when it gets a vote this week. 

“Contrary to the false statements put out by the White House and congressional Democrats, this is absolutely NOT a bipartisan bill and will likely garner no Republican support,” read a statement from the office of Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It was hastily thrown together behind closed doors in a process with no Republican input and is being jammed through the House.”

Election reforms

Bipartisan negotiations over changes to the Electoral Count Act are continuing this week after the Senate group spoke throughout the one-week break. 

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is leading the group along with Manchin, said during an ABC News interview that the group will talk on Monday and now includes 16 senators. 

“I’m hopeful that we can come up with a bipartisan bill. … I think it is really important that we do this reform. And I hope it can be done on a bipartisan, overwhelming basis,” Collins said. 

The bipartisan Senate group is looking at making it clear that the vice president’s role is ceremonial after former President Trump, who has falsely claimed that the 2020 election was stolen from him, led a private and public pressure campaign to try to get his vice president, Mike Pence, to throw out the election results from key battleground states that Trump lost. 

Trump in a statement on Sunday lashed out at Collins, who said that it was “very unlikely” she would support him in 2024, calling her “Wacky Susan Collins” and blasting Pence for not unilaterally dismissing the results from states where Trump lost, and mounted failed legal challenges, saying that Pence “could have overturned the Election!” 

In addition to clarifying the vice president’s role, the Senate group is also looking at increasing the number of lawmakers that have to support a challenge to a state’s results before the House and Senate are required to vote on the objection. Currently, only one member of the House and one member of the Senate have to support an objection in order to force a vote on the objection. 

Republicans on Jan. 6, 2021, forced votes on challenges to the results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, both of which failed. But the process was interrupted for hours when a mob of the former president’s supporters breached the Capitol, interrupting the Electoral College count and forcing lawmakers to evacuate the House Senate chambers. 

In addition to the bipartisan group, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Angus King (I-Maine) are working on legislation to reform the Electoral Count Act. 

“I think we’re talking about the same basic challenges that we want to make sure the Electoral College is valid,” Durbin said. “It hasn’t been looked at for 150 years. Now’s the time.”

Nominations 

Though Biden’s impending Supreme Court nomination will dominate much of the chatter among senators this week, Schumer also set up votes on roughly 20 nominees before the Senate left town. 

Senators will start working through the slate of picks on Monday, when they’ll take an initial vote on Bridget Meehan Brennan’s nomination to be a district judge.

In addition to votes on 11 judicial nominations, Schumer has teed up Amy Gutmann’s nomination to be ambassador to Germany, Lisa Carty’s nomination to be the U.S. representative on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, Scott Nathan’s nomination to be chief executive officer of the United States International Development Finance Corporation and Chantale Yokmin Wong’s nomination be the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank. 

The Senate is also expected to vote on Gabriel Camarillo’s nomination to be under secretary of the Army, Andrew Philip Hunter to be an assistant secretary of the Air Force, John Patrick Coffey to be general counsel of the Department of the Navy, Alexandra Baker to be a deputy under secretary of Defense and Reta Jo Lewis to be president of the Export-Import Bank.  

Tags Amy Klobuchar Angus King anti-China competitiveness bill Ben Cardin Bob Menendez Breyer retirement Build Back Better Act Build Back Better bill Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Dana Bash Dick Durbin Donald Trump Electoral Count Act Jan. 6 attack January 6 Committee Jeanne Shaheen Jim Risch Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Cornyn Judicial nominations Lindsey Graham Michael McCaul Mike Pence Nancy Pelosi nominations Rob Portman Russia sanctions Stephen Breyer Supreme Court confirmation Supreme Court nomination Susan Collins Ted Cruz Vladimir Putin

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