Sen. Ted Cruz has forced a vote on reimposing sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, putting Senate Democrats in a bind over backing tough-on-Kremlin legislation that would embarrass President Biden.
Democrats are looking for a way out.
Mr. Cruz, Texas Republican, got the Senate’s Democratic leaders to schedule a Jan. 14 vote on his sanctions bill in exchange for him releasing holds on dozens of Biden appointees. The bill would restore sanctions Mr. Biden withdrew from the nearly operational undersea pipeline into Germany.
Critics contend that the natural gas pipeline will increase Moscow’s dominance over European energy markets and put Germany and other countries at risk of energy extortion.
The Biden administration waived the Trump-era sanctions against the pipeline in May. It argued that the sanctions would have little effect in curbing progress on the pipeline, which runs through the Baltic Sea.
Now, with U.S.-Russia tensions deteriorating by the day, the administration is using the threat of renewed sanctions on the pipeline as leverage to deter Russia from invading Ukraine.
With a Senate vote on the sanctions on the calendar, Democrats are under pressure to maintain a tough stance against Russia while not crossing the White House.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, was highly critical of the pipeline after the July deal was announced, but voting to undo Mr. Biden’s moves would be a rebuke on a much larger scale.
Mr. Menendez previously offered legislation that would authorize the sanctions — but only in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ultimatum is in-line with Mr. Biden’s stance.
Mr. Cruz’s bill needs 60 votes to pass and Republicans have said they are confident they can secure enough support to get it over the finish line.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, could force a side-by-side vote on the Cruz and Menendez bills, potentially derailing support for the immediate sanctions in the GOP bill. A vote in favor of Menendez’s version would offer political cover for Democrats.
Mr. Menendez did not respond to a request for comment.
German regulators halted the final approval of the pipeline in November after Nord Stream 2 failed to file the necessary paperwork, and the Biden administration now sees a window to use the pipeline as leverage in the Ukraine showdown before gas begins to flow.
“This pipeline does not have gas flowing through it at present,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. “And if Russia renews its aggression toward Ukraine, it would certainly be difficult to see gas flowing through it in the future.”
“Some may see Nord Stream two is leveraged that Russia can use against Europe,” he said. “In fact, it’s leveraged for Europe to use against Russia.”
Republicans are not buying it.
“As evident by Russia’s escalating aggression, the mere threat of sanctions will not stop Putin from invading Ukraine,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican and ranking member on the Senate Banking Committee.
“The administration must immediately take concrete steps to assist our Ukrainian partners by sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, providing lethal assistance, and bolstering our bilateral defensive cooperation.”