Jan 13, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats sink Ted Cruz's bill to sanction Nord Stream 2

Sen. Ted Cruz. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Senate on Thursday failed to pass a bill sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, after the Biden administration aggressively lobbied Democrats to defeat Sen. Ted Cruz's effort to target the Putin-backed project.

Why it matters: The 55-44 vote is the culmination of Cruz's months-long push to force Democrats into an uncomfortable vote on Nord Stream 2, which the Ukrainian government has said is "no less an existential threat to our security" than the tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on its border. The bill needed 60 votes to pass.

  • Sens. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) were the only Democrats to vote in favor of the bill.
  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the only Republican to vote against it.

How we got here: Consecutive U.S. administrations have opposed Nord Stream 2, fearing that the Russia-to-Germany pipeline would give Vladimir Putin more leverage to coerce Europe and deprive Ukraine of billions of dollars in gas transit fees.

  • Democrats and Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly supported sanctions against the pipeline during the Trump administration, temporarily stalling its construction.
  • By the time President Biden entered office, Nord Stream 2 was 95% complete. Biden waived sanctions on the pipeline's operator in May 2021, seeking to repair relations with Germany and strike a deal to mitigate the damage it could cause to Ukraine and Europe.
  • In response, Cruz initiated a blockade of all of Biden's State Department nominees until the administration reimposed sanctions. He reached a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in December to release his hold on 32 nominees in exchange for a Senate vote on his bill.

Behind the scenes: Over the past several weeks, the Biden administration has dispatched top State Department officials to Capitol Hill and distributed talking points to lobby Democrats who felt uneasy about opposing sanctions.

  • The administration has argued that Cruz's bill would undermine "trans-Atlantic unity" at a critical moment in the West's push to de-escalate the crisis over Ukraine.
  • The State Department has also pointed to comments from Germany's foreign minister stating that gas will not flow through the pipeline if Russia invades Ukraine, arguing that Nord Stream 2 has become a valuable source of leverage.
  • But Germany's chancellor has refused to make that same commitment, and members of the European Parliament tell Axios that it is Nord Stream 2 — not the threat of sanctions — that is "poisoning" the trans-Atlantic relationship.

What's next: Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has introduced a White House-backed bill that would impose a cascade of crushing sanctions and authorize further military assistance to Ukraine if Biden determines Russia has crossed a line.

  • The bill is designed in part to provide political cover to Democrats who still support Ukraine and a hard line against Russia.
  • Senate Republicans have their own Russia sanctions bill and will push for a vote, believing that costs against Putin must be imposed now — not after an invasion — in order to have a deterrent effect.

Between the lines: Despite the Biden administration's full-court press, a bipartisan Senate majority is now on the record supporting immediate sanctions on Nord Stream 2.

  • Any future vote on a Russian sanctions package now runs the risk of Republicans proposing an amendment to sanction the pipeline — this time, at a 51-vote threshold.
  • "Kyiv is certain that NS2 will be sanctioned eventually. We just hope it’s before further damage to trans-Atlantic unity and European security," a source close to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Axios.
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