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Congress eyes next steps after Biden announces Russia sanctions

Democrats and Republicans vow to pass punishing sanctions package when lawmakers return to Washington next week.

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats and Republicans are eyeing their next steps after President Joe Biden imposed new sanctions Tuesday in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering troops into two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.

House Intelligence Committee members said they were working on bipartisan legislation requiring a plan for the U.S. to provide support for pro-Ukraine independence fighters. And a bipartisan group of senators began working on an emergency spending bill to help NATO and Ukraine combat Russian aggression.

The moment for bipartisanship may be short — giving lawmakers only days or weeks to formulate a legislative response before retreating into their partisan corners and lobbing criticism instead of cooperation during a midterm election year.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said if Russia continues its incursion deeper into Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies should cut off Russia from SWIFT, the secure global financial messaging system used by banks worldwide.

“Well, that is what I consider among the mother of all sanctions,” Menendez said Tuesday during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Hallie Jackson Reports.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who serves on the Intelligence and Finance committees, called the sanctions announced Tuesday “too little, too late,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., dismissed the Biden effort as "woefully inadequate." The House GOP leadership team, led by Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, issued a joint statement accusing Biden of choosing “appeasement” over “strong action" against Putin.

Biden signed an executive order Monday barring new U.S. investment in, trade with and financing of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions of Ukraine that Putin said Monday he would recognize as independent.

On Tuesday, Biden announced that he’s unilaterally imposing a new tranche of sanctions in response to what he called "the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine."

The retaliatory measures target two Russian financial institutions — VEB and its military bank — as well as Russian elites and their families, Biden said. They would also bar Russia from trading on its debt in U.S. and European markets.

Speaking from the White House, Biden also said he’s making good on his promise of ensuring the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, connecting Russia with Germany, is halted. That development would be a major economic blow for Russia, costing it billions in revenue.

"If Russia goes further with this invasion, we stand prepared to go further as with sanctions," Biden said.

Capitol Hill was largely quiet Tuesday, with members of the House and Senate fanned out across the country and around the world due to the Presidents Day recess. But Putin’s provocations sparked a flurry of text messages, tweets and media appearances by lawmakers warning that the U.S. must respond forcefully or risk further aggression and destabilization by Russia and other hostile nations.

“If we do not show decisive strength in this moment, Putin’s aggression will increase,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., a member of the GOP leadership team who serves on the Armed Services panel.

Lawmakers in both chambers return to Washington next week, and they are vowing to pass what Graham called a “sanctions regime from hell.” That's something senators failed to agree to last week, instead settling for a joint statement from congressional leaders and a toothless resolution supporting Ukraine and condemning Russian aggression.

“I’d like to go after Putin and his cronies as hard as we can. I would like to make life miserable for Putin and those who support him, because if we don’t, other bad actors are going to move quickly in other areas,” Graham told reporters in South Carolina on Tuesday.

“The nightmare scenario is aggression by China, Iran, Russia and others all at once.”

“The nightmare scenario is aggression by China, Iran, Russia and others all at once.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Graham, the top Republican on the Budget Committee and a defense hawk, said he’s been on the phone “all morning” working with Democrats on an emergency spending bill that would launch a new task force at the Justice, State, Treasury and Defense departments targeting Russian oligarchs. 

“I want this task force to go after Putin’s assets personally,” Graham said.

In the House, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., has teamed up with Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, on legislation that will take an assessment of how the U.S. can best assist pro-democracy forces in Ukraine if Russia launches a full-scale invasion and captures the capital of Kyiv.

“First, we need to get ready to assist our Ukrainian friends secure their sovereignty if the Russians invade, and second, we need to send a strong message to the Russians and others that the costs of invading Ukraine will be prohibitive,” Krishnamoorthi told NBC News in an interview Tuesday.

“If the Russians think this Ukrainian misadventure will successfully end in a matter of weeks or a short timeframe, they are sorely mistaken,” he said. “Ukraine has 7 million men of military age, and I believe many will stand and fight, and they will have friends here and elsewhere who will support them.”