After weeks of debate, Congress has finally approved its first sanctions on Russia, spurred on by new reports of war crimes in Ukraine.
Lawmakers passed two bills aimed at levying severe penalties on Russia and providing more support for Ukraine on Thursday. The legislation, the Suspending Normal Trade Relations with Russia and Belarus Act and the Suspending Energy Imports From Russia Act, covers much of the same ground as sanctions the White House has already put in place, but underscores the degree of bipartisan support for such punishments.
These bills codify the Biden administration’s ban on Russian oil imports and revoke normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus. They also go further than existing sanctions by reauthorizing the Magnitsky Act, which allows the US government to sanction individuals for human rights violations.
Additionally, the Senate passed legislation on Wednesday which establishes a lend-lease agreement that enables the US to loan weapons which Ukraine can pay for at a later time. The House has yet to consider this bill, however, and won’t take it up before an upcoming recess.
Until this week, sanctions legislation has been bogged down in the Senate due to Republican concerns.
Ultimately, lawmakers faced pressure to get something done before they left for a two-week recess on Friday, particularly following reports of hundreds of civilian casualties and evidence of torture in Bucha, Ukraine.
“If anybody ever justified the revocation of normal trade relations, it’s Vladimir Putin and the Russians for their conduct … and all this grotesque barbarism over the weekend and into the week,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) told reporters on Wednesday.
What Congress’s sanctions would do
The Senate had struggled to come together on a sanctions package, despite longstanding bipartisan interest in doing so, largely due to the concerns of two GOP senators, whose buy-in was needed for a vote to move forward quickly.
In recent weeks, Republicans have held up a vote as they demanded specific changes. Two weeks ago, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) took issue with Magnitsky Act provisions which established the human rights violations that could warrant sanctions. He argued the bill was too broad regarding what counted as a violation, and could lead to Democrats sanctioning people for actions like blocking abortion access.
“We’ve just told them they need to put the definition in there of what a human rights abuse is,” Paul said at the time. “But we won’t let them pass it unless they put it in there so they’re either going to put it in there or they’re going to be here for a week doing it.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), meanwhile, had pushed for a lend-lease agreement to be considered along with existing sanctions bills.
Both lawmakers’ issues were eventually resolved. The language in the Magnitsky Act provision was changed to focus on “gross” human rights violations instead of “serious” human rights violations. And Cornyn also received a vote on his lend-lease legislation.
Both chambers have now passed two sanctions bills, which cover the following provisions:
- Oil ban: The oil ban bars Russian imports of oil, natural gas, and coal, codifying an action Biden already took last month.
- Revocation of normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus: Biden had previously announced his support of repealing normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus, but required congressional authorization to fully implement it. Changing the trade status of these two countries enables the US to impose higher tariffs on imported goods.
- Reauthorizing the Magnitsky Act: The proposal would also reauthorize the Magnitsky Act, which enables the US government to sanction individuals and entities that have committed human rights violations by denying them entry into the country, freezing assets held by US financial institutions, and preventing Americans from engaging in business transactions with them.
Congress’s actions back up what the administration has done
Many of Congress’s actions bolster moves that Biden has already made.
Because of the broad authority the president was given under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) in 1977, the executive branch is able to implement most sanctions on its own, says Adam Smith, a sanctions attorney who previously worked on the issue in the Obama administration.
“I can’t think of any legislative obligation that was given to any executive that they couldn’t have assumed him or herself,” Smith told Vox.
By passing sanctions, however, Congress is sending a message that the US government is united in its support for Ukraine and its focus on holding Russia accountable. Additionally, it’s using legislation to further empower the president, while giving Congress some jurisdiction over when penalties can be lifted.
In the case of revoking normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus, for example, Congress’s actions strengthen Biden’s ability to impose more tariffs, and show that he has the backing of members of both parties in doing so.
These bills, however, can also make it tougher to roll back sanctions: When it comes to both bills, the president would need to submit certifications to Congress in order to remove the penalties, a safeguard against reversing the punishments before Russia has stopped its invasion.