Russia sanctions talks at ‘impasse’ as time runs short

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) speaks to a reporter as he leaves the Capitol on Tuesday, December 7, 2021 for votes regarding nominations including Federal Communications Commission Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel.
Greg Nash

Top senators involved in Russia sanctions negotiations said Thursday that they’ve hit an “impasse” and are exploring back-up options as time runs short. 

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) — the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and ranking member, respectively — said their negotiations on Russia sanctions legislation are stuck as they struggle to bridge differences related to secondary sanctions on Russia’s banks, which could have broader impacts across Europe, and what to do about Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that would carry natural gas from Russia to Germany. 

“It is at an impasse, but there are other ways forward,” Risch said. 

Menendez added that they are “exploring other options.” 

One potential alternative the two senators said would be to offer competing bills that would both get votes. One would be closer to what Republicans want to see and the other closer to Democrats’ priorities. 

To do that before the Senate leaves for recess on Feb. 18, Risch and Menendez would need buy-in from leadership to set aside floor time. 

“It’s no secret that both sides have a little different idea about how to proceed. … Everybody should get a chance to vote on how they feel about the different aspects of this,” Risch said about the option. 

It’s not clear what dueling votes would get the bipartisan group that has been trying to reach a deal. 

Risch said that he hoped that it could result in “a completed bill at some point in time” but that it “remains to be seen” if the votes wouldn’t just break along party lines. 

“Wait and see what comes out,” Risch said.

The Republican did not clarify, however, if he and Menendez would release proposals together or separately. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who has been involved in the bipartisan negotiations, said that instead of a Democratic proposal and a GOP proposal, the two options could be a bill that is largely bipartisan as well as an alternative that would give GOP senators who wanted to go further on Nord Stream 2 something to vote for. 

“It would be a process in which in the end there would be a clear path forward. …The Menendez bill incorporates 98 percent of what the Republicans want. So, at the end of the day my expectation is that most if not all would be supporting the bill even if the [GOP] substitute was not approved,” Cardin said. 

“As a practical matter we have those who want to vote on saying they’re tougher on Nord Stream. …They want to make that point,” Cardin added. 

A GOP aide said that no decisions had been made, but that they “would strongly push back” against the alternative proposal only being about Nord Stream 2.

Another option on the table would be release a scaled-back bill that would only include what the bipartisan group agreed on, like sanctions in response to Russia’s cyberattacks and lethal aid for Ukraine. 

The impasse is a U-turn from late last month when Menendez put the negotiations on the “one-yard line” and Risch seemed hopeful that they could have a deal within days. 

Risch also appeared optimistic late last week that a deal was imminent. 

But senators have struggled to lock in an agreement as they’ve circled perennial sticking points like what to do about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Democrats blocked legislation recently from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) that would have slapped sanctions on businesses related to the pipeline and allowed Congress to vote to try to reimpose them if President Biden waived them. 

Both Risch and Menendez emerged from an unrelated closed-door briefing on Wednesday both warning that time was running short. 

Senators had hoped to get a sanctions deal that could be used as a deterrent against Russian President Vladimir Putin over concerns that Russia could invade Ukraine. 

But the House, which would also need to pass any agreement, left town on Wednesday until Feb. 28. The Senate is also expected to leave town at the end of next week until Feb. 28. 

Menendez warned on Wednesday that the talks were at an “inflection point” and decisions would soon need to be made about the path forward. 

Risch also acknowledged that they were running out of time. 

“We are running out of runway,” Risch said. “This has got to be done, and it’s got to be done soon.” 

Updated at 4:11 p.m.

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Mendendez Bob Menendez Jim Risch Joe Biden Nord Stream 2 pipeline Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian sanctions Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ted Cruz U.S Ukraine Vladimir Putin
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