Updated Dec 1, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Fight over Putin's pipeline consumes Congress

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Biden administration, House and Senate Democrats and even the German government have been engaged in a multi-pronged effort to stop Congress from imposing mandatory sanctions on a Kremlin-backed natural gas pipeline.

Why it matters: President Biden's decision to let Nord Stream 2 proceed has put his allies in an uncomfortable bind. Republicans have already blocked dozens of Biden's foreign-policy nominees, and the dispute threatened to derail an annual defense bill passed by Congress every year for six decades.

Catch up quick: Democrats and Republicans have for years opposed Nord Stream 2, which would circumvent Ukrainian transit infrastructure and deliver Russian gas directly to Germany.

  • But Biden waived sanctions against the operator of Nord Stream 2 in the spring to help repair U.S. relations with Germany.
  • The White House argues the pipeline was already too close to completion to be blocked, and sanctions would undermine "transatlantic unity."
  • Ukraine views Nord Stream 2 as an existential threat, as it would remove one of the last deterrents the country has against a Russian invasion of its territory.

Driving the news: With a Dec. 31 deadline looming, the Senate has remained unable to close debate on the National Defense Authorization Act.

  • The delay is in large part because Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer refused to hold a floor vote on a Republican amendment reimposing sanctions on the operator of Nord Stream 2, citing a technical issue with the amendment.
  • However, late Tuesday night, the Senate reached an agreement to hotline — the process by which Republican and Democratic leadership swiftly gauges whether they can expedite legislative business — a package of 21 amendments for floor consideration.
  • The Nord Stream amendment proposed by Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is included in the package, Senate leadership aides tell Axios. If there are no objections to the overall package, Risch's amendment will be formally considered, they said.

The backdrop: The Biden administration, led by State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein and secretary of State Antony Blinken, has been lobbying Democrats against the amendment.

  • Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a key Senate Democrat who authored previous Nord Stream 2 sanctions, told Axios she has "always been clear" about her opposition to the pipeline, and will "continue to review legislation and mechanisms in Congress" that would address her concerns.
  • House Democrats, meanwhile, had been working to strip out a similar version of a Nord Stream 2 sanctions amendment in "pre-conference" negotiations with the Senate, multiple sources familiar with the discussions told Axios.

Between the lines: The White House and some Democrats say they're concerned Republicans are using the Nord Stream 2 issue to score domestic political points, pointing to Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) blockade of State Department nominees.

  • Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a co-sponsor of the House amendment, is continuing to push for sanctions but condemned Senate Republicans' behavior: "They ought to make these appointments for the security of our country," she told Axios at a U.S.-Ukraine Foundation event on Tuesday.

What to watch: The Risch amendment would be set up as a "side-by-side" with another amendment proposed by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), which would impose a cascade of sanctions — including on Nord Stream 2 — if Russia invades Ukraine, according to a Senate aide.

  • Unlike the Risch amendment, Menendez's amendment ultimately leaves the determination of whether to sanction Russia up to the Biden administration.

Go deeper: "Scoop — Germany urges Congress not to sanction Putin’s pipeline."

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