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Senate labors to give Biden another win on Ukraine

Mere days after all but eight House members voted to revoke normal trade relations with Russia — a whopping total in the bitterly divided chamber — its path through the Senate is already looking complicated.

Senate Republicans are demanding the legislation be paired with a separate House-passed measure banning Russian oil imports. Democratic leaders are instead aiming to quickly pass the trade bill this week by itself, honoring a request from President Joe Biden as he looks to further isolate Russia over its war in Ukraine.

The dispute threatens to delay or derail congressional action on an overwhelmingly popular measure designed to punish Russia and deprive its economy of key revenue streams. But one key Republican involved in the push suggested that Democrats are already on track for a resolution by letting both the trade and oil sanctions packages pass.

“We are negotiating and my hope is that we will merge the two House bills,” said Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. “The House voted for both bills with over 400 votes. And that kind of bipartisan agreement is still in existence over here on both bills.”

Any prolonged negotiation could hinder what has otherwise been a lightning-quick response from Congress to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. The two parties sent $14 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine recently to help finance its defenses against Russia; Republicans and some Democrats have publicly prodded Biden to act faster than he has. But unless all 100 senators agree on a path forward, the Senate can’t vote quickly on anything this week.

Crapo indicated the GOP wants to take a harder line than Biden’s executive action banning Russian oil imports. He said Congress should still act because the House-passed oil sanctions legislation includes language that allows lawmakers to block the president from scrapping the embargo at a future date.

Going further still, Crapo vowed he would try to amend any effort from Democrats to move the trade bill on its own.

Democrats said only that they would do everything they can to pass the House bill revoking trade relations this week.

“We need this legislation passed without delay. It got overwhelming support from Republicans in the House, including from Leader McCarthy,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “There is no reason — absolutely no reason — to delay its passage.”

Despite their demands, Republicans remain supportive of revoking trade relations with Moscow and chalked up the partisan disputes to a matter of process.

Democrats and Republicans in the House initially combined the trade provisions with the oil ban earlier this month, but House Democrats removed the trade language from the oil embargo amid opposition from the White House. Biden later reversed course and called on Congress to suspend trade relations with Russia and Belarus.

“The [trade] issue needs to be something that’s part of the economic pressure that we build” on Russia, Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said. He hoped for action as soon as this week.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters Monday that he planned to discuss the issue with both Schumer and Crapo, adding: “From a trade standpoint, this delivers the most serious economic consequences in a generation.” Wyden wants to pass the trade bill on its own, contra Crapo.

After Biden called on Congress to act, the House voted overwhelmingly last week to suspend permanent normal trade relations with both Russia and Belarus. The bipartisan bill was approved 424 to 8. The objectors included hardline conservatives who argued that the bill’s expansion of the Global Magnitsky Act — which empowers the president to impose sanctions on human-rights abusers — would allow Biden to pursue a “radical” social agenda.

But Republicans in both chambers generally support expanding the 2016 law championed by the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Democrats are eager to show a united front with Biden as he rallies European partners behind his campaign to punish Russia.

“I think we’ll take the easiest path. There’s a lot of agreement,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). “Why waste time?”

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