What wonâ€™t happen, however, is an outright win for the GOP. The White House is aggressively pushing Democrats to reject Sen. Ted Cruzâ€™s bill financially walloping the pipeline known as Nord Stream 2, and Democrats are expected to block the legislation as soon as Thursday.
But Republicans are eager to leverage the issue to their political advantage as President Joe Biden navigates delicate talks with Russia over its military buildup on the border with Ukraine.
Democrats have â€œjust spent an enormous amount of political capital holding all their people together who do not want to be in that positionâ€ of opposing the sanctions, said Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. â€œI mean, this absolutely doesnâ€™t make sense.â€
Biden and his national-security deputies contend Cruzâ€™s bill would undercut their push for unity with European allies against Russiaâ€™s aggression, in Ukraine and elsewhere. Yet the administration’s lobbying against the Cruz bill, paired with Democratsâ€™ counter-proposal to it, strikes Republicans as frantic maneuvering to prevent an embarrassing loss.
And the GOP’s approach is backed by top Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has publicly urged senators to back Cruzâ€™s legislation. (Ukraine has long opposed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which circumvents its territory, worrying that the energy project would strengthen Moscowâ€™s footing in Europe.)
Cruz crowed that â€œthe White House is scrambling. They are trying very hard to put political pressure on Democrats.â€ The conservative Texan, who has been leading the pipeline sanctions push for months, added that the forceful Biden administration response comes after Democrats â€œspent five years with Donald Trump as president screaming, â€˜Russia Russia Russia.â€™â€
Indeed, the Biden administration is working hard to ensure that there are as few Democratic defections as possible on the sanctions vote. Senior State Department officials briefed on-the-fence Democrats on Monday night, and a trio of officials from the Defense, State and Treasury departments came to the Capitol on Wednesday to persuade senators and aides. The State Department also blasted out a memo on the matter to Senate offices.
The Biden administrationâ€™s arguments appear to be resonating with Democrats, even those who have been the most vocal about the need to sanction Nord Stream 2. Nearly all Democrats have thus far resisted Cruzâ€™s approach, citing the need to allow Biden to engage in diplomacy with the Kremlin over concerns that it will move to re-invade Ukraine in the coming days.
Democrats have also accused Cruz of abusing the Senateâ€™s rules in order to force a debate on his sanctions package. The Texas Republican secured a vote on his bill as part of an agreement last month with Democratic leaders after Cruz held up quick confirmation of dozens of Biden’s ambassador nominees.
The Biden administration faced bipartisan criticism last year when it decided to waive mandatory sanctions on the pipeline out of a desire to repair relations with Germany, which supports the project as a means to bolster its natural gas resources. But the new German government has since changed its position on the issue, agreeing to hold off on final certification of Nord Stream 2 while Putin threatens an invasion of Ukraine.
Democrats had previously backed sanctions on the pipeline but now contend that the circumstances surrounding the issue have changed, requiring a shift on their part as well.
In response to Cruzâ€™s gambit, a large group of Democratic senators unveiled legislation on Wednesday that would impose biting sanctions on Russia â€” including on Nord Stream 2 â€” if Moscow invades its neighbor. The plan, Democrats say, preserves Bidenâ€™s ability to use the not-yet-operational pipeline as leverage to convince Putin to back down.
â€œThatâ€™s the first and foremost reason I did it,â€ Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who introduced the counter-proposal on Wednesday, said in an interview. â€œWe face an immediate challenge â€” the potential of Russia invading. So which is the better course to deter Russia?â€
The clash between the two legislative courses on Russia may not break along easy party lines this week. Democrats warn that Cruzâ€™s bill would splinter the U.S. from European allies, undermining Bidenâ€™s push for trans-Atlantic unity in the face of Russiaâ€™s aggression. They say Cruz is rooting for Biden to fail and hoping to prop up his own presidential ambitions.
Yet even as Republicans blast the Menendez-led effort as a bid for political cover designed to give Democrats an opportunity to oppose Cruzâ€™s bill while maintaining a tough posture toward Russia, some of them could end up voting for it. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) is among those in the GOP expressing openness to the severe sanctions prescribed in Menendezâ€™s bill, which lawmakers believe would be justified if Russia invades Ukraine.
â€œYou might get 95 senators voting for that, maybe 99,â€ added Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a top Foreign Relations Committee member, said of the Menendez proposal, which is backed by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. â€œThereâ€™s a view that thatâ€™s being used for cover on the Cruz vote, which I donâ€™t see it as that.â€
Republicans would prefer to keep the focus on Democrats who have backed away from Cruzâ€™s bill, noting that nearly all senators previously supported the exact sanctions outlined in the legislation.
â€œAt this point, the only thing thatâ€™s changed is that instead of a Republican in the White House, thereâ€™s a Democrat in the White House,â€ Cruz said. â€œAnd an awful lot of Senate Democrats right now seem perfectly willing to put partisan loyalty above national security.â€
The Senate GOP campaign arm is already using the vote to squeeze vulnerable Democrats who are up for reelection this year.
At least one of those Democrats, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, plans to support Cruzâ€™s bill. But itâ€™s unclear if more Democrats will join her, and Republicans are conceding that itâ€™s unlikely theyâ€™ll secure the requisite 60 votes for passage.