Senators issue bipartisan support for Ukraine, warn Russia

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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., listens to reporters during a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, after a Democratic weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington.(AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

WASHINGTON – In a rare bipartisan accord, Senate leaders issued a joint statement Tuesday signaling solidarity with an independent Ukraine and issuing a stern warning that Russia would pay a “severe price” of sanctions if President Vladimir Putin attacks across its border.

Senators of both parties have been eager to show a unified front from the U.S. as tensions rise on Ukraine's border with Russia. But they shelved for now their own sanctions legislation, unable to resolve differences over the scope and timing and deferring to the White House strategy for edging Russia away from the crisis.

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“In this dark hour," the 12 Democratic and Republican senators declared, they wanted to make sure the strong U.S. position was clear to the people of Ukraine and to Putin.

If Putin attacks, “Russia must be made to pay a severe price,” they wrote. "We are prepared to fully support the immediate imposition of strong, robust, and effective sanctions on Russia, as well as tough restrictions and controls on exports to Russia, and we will urge our allies and partners in Europe and around the world to join us.”

The statement from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Democratic chairmen and ranking Republicans of several committees came together as part of a fast-moving series of events in response to the threatening buildup of Russian forces on the border.

President Joe Biden and other Western leaders are working to persuade Putin not to invade Ukraine, and the president said Tuesday that the U.S. would continue to give diplomacy "every chance.” But he said in his own firm statement that military action in Ukraine would not be tolerated. Putin, too, indicated he would welcome more dialogue, but Washington remained skeptical.

Biden's administration is able to impose devastating sanctions on Russia that would cut across the country’s economy, with or without congressional action, senators said.

The Senate is to recess at the end of the week, and lawmakers wanted a unified response before then.

Senators emerged from a closed-door briefing Monday with the White House's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan suggesting all options remain on the table.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that has been working to assemble sanctions legislation, said that short of such a measure, “We should express the Senate’s position vis-à-vis the support of Ukraine, at a minimum.”

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, said even a Senate resolution backing Ukraine would carry weight: “It sends a message.”

On Tuesday, Risch and Republicans on the panel did introduce sanctions legislation aiming to provide support to Ukraine while imposing punishment on Russia for any future aggression.

“While a ‘military’ invasion has not yet occurred, there are other ways Russia can attack Ukraine that would be debilitating for Ukrainians and European security more generally,” Risch said in a statement.

There is broad support in the Senate for imposing sanctions on Russia as a powerful foreign policy tool, but Republicans and Democrats differ on the details and timing. There have also been differences over the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline between Russia and Germany, although those may have become resolved after Biden said last week the energy line would not continue if Russia invades Ukraine.

Senators considering the options also have said the White House has its own strategy, signaling they may hold off as the administration pursues its approach. They said the administration can impose sanctions on its own, regardless of congressional action.

“We don’t want to complicate their lives by restricting their ability to engage in diplomacy with Europe,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think the deeper we got into it, the more complicated and nuanced the balance became.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said administration action could be quicker than the sanctions Congress is considering, especially with the House away until the end of the month.

“The administration has all the authorities that it needs under law to level the sanctions that many of us have talked about doing," Rubio said. “I don’t want anyone to believe that somehow the U.S. won’t be able to respond with sanctions along with our allies if there is an invasion.”

Still, senators are eager to act and have been considering a resolution backing up the new statement. A resolution would not carry the weight of law, but would nevertheless provide a record of Senate support for Ukraine's independence in the face of Russian aggression. Such a measure, still being drafted, could come together for a vote, senators said.

Late Monday, senators spoke about the strong, bipartisan support the Senate has shown for years toward Ukraine. Congress has approved aid and supplies, and many lawmakers have traveled to the country to stand alongside the Ukrainian people and their leaders.

Tensions have mounted in the region as Putin demands assurances from the U.S. and its allies that it won’t accept Ukraine into NATO, a pledge Washington has rejected.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said Putin’s ambitions extend beyond Ukraine as the Russian president tries to diminish the United States' stature in Europe and erode the longstanding trans-Atlantic alliance.

Shaheen says bipartisan discussions on Ukraine are “an opportunity to show the rest of the world we are united.”

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