Once a foreign policy partner, Congress is fighting for unity in Ukraine

WASHINGTON — Ever since the 1950s, when Senator Arthur Vandenberg declared that “politics ends at the water’s edge,” congressional titans have been key partners in American foreign policy, not as “yes-men” to presidents, but as co-architects of Pax Americana and The Order After World War II.

But the deepening Ukraine conflict has shown just how far Congressional power in the foreign policy arena has declined since the death of Senator John McCain, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s move from Capitol Hill to the White House, and the rise of one Partisanship that reaches far beyond the water’s edge.

Loud voices were raised this week urging President Biden to take strong action against Russian aggression. But other lawmakers have used the crisis to the party’s advantage, lashing out at the president and blaming the Biden administration for President Vladimir V. Putin’s attack on his neighbor.

Perhaps more telling is the relative calm of both Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress, hampered by divisions within their ranks and seemingly content to let the White House lead, take credit, or blame.

“Congress will stand ready to take additional action if additional action is deemed necessary,” Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, said Tuesday afternoon, summing up the stance of many of his peers.

This caution matches the legislature’s reluctance to challenge the presidency’s growing powers abroad.

“If you put your name next to an action, you’re condemned for it, and Congress is full of risk-averse people,” said Casey Burgat, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University, a major in Congressional and Foreign Policy. “Foreign policy is a minefield of unintended consequences. It’s hard to put your name next to something if you don’t know how it ends.”

After a month of trying to reach a consensus, senators from both parties got back to work on Tuesday on a multi-pronged legislative response to Russian aggression that will provide emergency funds to defend Ukraine, weaken Moscow’s economy and create a new one task force to find ways to seize the wealth of Russian oligarchs and possibly the wealth of Mr Putin himself.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said an emergency spending and bipartisan sanctions bill — long delayed in Congress — could be passed when lawmakers return from a President’s Day hiatus.

“I want a sanctions regime from hell next week,” he told reporters at a news conference in South Carolina.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said talks began Monday night and picked up momentum Tuesday after senators unsuccessfully squabbled over the past month over the scope, form and timing of a sanctions measure.

The spending bill would provide lethal aid to Ukraine, help the Defense Ministry fund troop deployments to NATO countries in northern and western Ukraine, and prepare Ukraine’s neighbors for refugees. The sanctions law aims to target the fabulously wealthy oligarchs who have bolstered Mr Putin’s government while sending their children to schools in the West and their money to yachts in European ports and luxury apartments in London and Manhattan.

“There is a consensus among Democrats and Republicans that one of the softer downsides of Putin’s world is the lavish lifestyles of the oligarchs he supports to keep him in power,” Mr Graham said. But he also warned the broader Russian public: “You can expect bad things to come your way.”

Mr Blumenthal said Germany’s action this week to halt work on a major natural gas pipeline from Russia to western Europe removed the biggest sticking point in a sanctions law. Some Republicans had pushed hard for sanctions to shut down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but the Biden administration firmly opposed any such action pending a Russian attack, fearing it would fragment the transatlantic alliance and threaten NATO’s unity an invasion would hurt.

But a month ago, Mr Blumenthal was among senators who vowed a bipartisan vote on sanctions against Russia would be held within a week or two to show US unity and resolve – and marginalize voices from the far right who American interests questioned the conflict or, even worse, sided with Mr. Putin.

“I was disappointed, to be quite frank, that we couldn’t get together,” Mr. Blumenthal said on Tuesday.

There is also no guarantee that there will now be a consensus. Foreign policy has become a graveyard for legislative ambitions. Repeated efforts to rescind or revise military force permits issued in 2001 and 2002 have gathered momentum only to die. Republican efforts to reframe or end President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran have come to nothing. Efforts by Democrats to block President Donald J. Trump’s “emergency” arms sales to the Middle East have also been unsuccessful.

The ever-expanding powers of an imperial presidency were largely met with inaction by the legislature.

But the current crisis could be different, said Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who has worked unsuccessfully for nine years to reassert congressional authority to declare wars. Mr. Biden has sweeping powers to impose crippling sanctions himself, but Congress may need to legislate on some areas, such as Russia’s separation from the international banking computer system known as Swift. And after talking tough for so long, lawmakers will want to show they can come together.

“Congress would rather not act if it doesn’t have to, and leave it up to the President to determine whether there is a credible way to do it,” Mr. Kaine said. “But at this point there is no credible way to do that.”

Mr Graham, an outspoken ally of Mr Trump, said Tuesday amid gunfire from many of his Republican colleagues in the Biden administration: “We each have a president. President Biden is the President of the United States, and to the extent that I can help him push back on Putin, I will.”

But other Republicans were less amiable.

“Joe Biden has refused to take meaningful action and his weakness has emboldened Moscow,” Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, said in a statement Tuesday, echoing Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who wrote Monday: ” Biden-Harris officials bear a great deal of direct responsibility for this crisis.”

Even the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives snapped a photo of Mr. Biden’s back as he exited the East Room of the White House after announcing the latest round of sanctions, declaring, “This is what weakness looks like on the world stage.”

Criticism is nothing new, noted Mark Salter, a longtime associate, advisor and biographer of Mr. McCain. The senator, who died of brain cancer in 2018, was able to drive foreign and military policy from Capitol Hill through sheer personality. He could scathingly criticize the presidents of both parties, but he consistently advocated a strong transatlantic alliance to counter authoritarianism.

It’s that consistency that frays, Mr Salter said, and cheap shots for attention aren’t helpful. Republicans who remained silent as Mr. Trump launched a sustained attack on NATO and leaned toward Mr. Putin are now speaking of Mr. Biden’s weakness towards Russia. Leaders have failed to condemn isolationist voices in the party like Mr. Trump and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who tweeted: “What’s the deal with these neoconservatives drooling over our 18-year-old men who.” be torn to pieces in war?”

At conservative radio on TuesdayThe former President hailed Mr Putin as “clever” and “ingenious,” echoing the Russian strongman’s description of his invading forces as peacekeepers.

“This is the strongest peacekeeping force; we could use that on our southern border,” Trump said, adding, “There were more Army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They will keep the peace in order.”

Such sentiments are light years away from the internationalist coalition put together by Mr. Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican, to support the post-war Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the creation of NATO and mutual defense agreements through the United Nations.

“Even in the glory days of ‘politics stops by the water’, if there ever was, there was always political opportunism,” Mr Salter said. “Right now it’s just gross.”

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