Showdown at the Nord Stream Corral

U.S. Senate strikes down sanctions bill on a Russian pipeline project that became a political lightning rod in Washington.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Sen. Ted Cruz questions Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a hearing.
Sen. Ted Cruz questions Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a hearing.
Sen. Ted Cruz questions U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 14, 2021. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate narrowly voted against new sanctions on a controversial Russian pipeline project in Europe, capping off a series of dramatic political battles between the Biden administration and Capitol Hill that sparked an unprecedented Republican blockade on many of President Joe Biden’s nominees for senior State Department posts.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s bill to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline received 55 of votes in favor and 43 votes against, falling short of the 60-vote hurdle to pass even as the vote remained open on Thursday evening. A handful of Democrats, some of whom face tough reelection campaigns in the 2022 midterm cycle—including Sens. Tammy Baldwin, Maggie Hassan, Jacky Rosen, Raphael Warnock, and Catherine Cortez Masto—strayed from the party line and voted for Cruz’s bill but not enough to advance it.

The vote came after Cruz struck a deal with the Democratic leadership last month to lift his hold on dozens of State Department nominees in exchange for a vote on his bill. Cruz announced that he would put a blanket hold on nearly all of Biden’s State Department nominees in July 2021 after criticizing the Biden administration’s policy on Nord Stream 2. The Biden administration accused Cruz of undermining national security by blocking senior diplomatic posts and ambassadorships at U.S. embassies around the world from being filled in a timely manner.

The U.S. Senate narrowly voted against new sanctions on a controversial Russian pipeline project in Europe, capping off a series of dramatic political battles between the Biden administration and Capitol Hill that sparked an unprecedented Republican blockade on many of President Joe Biden’s nominees for senior State Department posts.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s bill to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline received 55 of votes in favor and 43 votes against, falling short of the 60-vote hurdle to pass even as the vote remained open on Thursday evening. A handful of Democrats, some of whom face tough reelection campaigns in the 2022 midterm cycle—including Sens. Tammy Baldwin, Maggie Hassan, Jacky Rosen, Raphael Warnock, and Catherine Cortez Masto—strayed from the party line and voted for Cruz’s bill but not enough to advance it.

The vote came after Cruz struck a deal with the Democratic leadership last month to lift his hold on dozens of State Department nominees in exchange for a vote on his bill. Cruz announced that he would put a blanket hold on nearly all of Biden’s State Department nominees in July 2021 after criticizing the Biden administration’s policy on Nord Stream 2. The Biden administration accused Cruz of undermining national security by blocking senior diplomatic posts and ambassadorships at U.S. embassies around the world from being filled in a timely manner.

The vote also came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts this week to try to defuse a crisis on Europe’s eastern flank, where Russia has amassed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.

A bipartisan group of senators is expected to travel to Ukraine as soon as next week to showcase U.S. support for Kyiv as it faces down Russian military aggression, multiple congressional aides told Foreign Policy.

The $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project aims to pump Russian gas into European markets via the Baltic Sea and Germany. U.S. and Eastern European officials have warned that the project masks the Kremlin’s geopolitical goals under the guise of a commercial project, increasing European dependence on Russian gas and allowing Russia to bypass Ukraine as a key transit country for delivering energy supplies to Europe.

Cruz’s bill would have required the United States to sanction the pipeline project within 15 days of its passage, regardless of whether Russia launches another invasion of Ukraine. The sanctions would also have targeted German citizens involved in the project, a prospect that worried Biden administration officials and Democrats hoping to repair U.S.-German relations after the Trump era.

Top Ukrainian officials supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project. (Gas transit revenues from Russia to Europe account for a significant portion of the Ukrainian government’s budget.) Nord Stream 2 “is a geopolitical project no less an existential threat to our security & democracy than Russian troops on our border,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal tweeted on Jan. 8. “[U.S.] Senators shouldn’t vote for protection of Russia/NS2. That’s the security matter not only for Ukraine, but for all region.”

Cruz accused Democrats who opposed his bill of hypocrisy; many Democrats have opposed the controversial pipeline project and previously backed a bill sanctioning Nord Stream 2 that was put forward by Cruz and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

“The White House is furiously lobbying Democrats, asking Democrats to stand with their party, sadly at the expense of our allies, at the expense of Europe, at the expense of U.S. national security,” Cruz said in a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday. “If Senate Democrats put partisan loyalty above national security, if they vote simply by party line, it will dramatically increase the chances of a violent Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

Many Democrats, meanwhile, argued the bill wouldn’t actually stop the pipeline from going online and would damage the Biden administration’s sensitive negotiations with European allies to defuse the crisis with Russia on Ukraine’s border.

“The reality is, if we don’t convince our European partners to stop moving forward with this project, there’s no amount of U.S. sanctions that can be effective here,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy argued on the Senate floor on Thursday.

The Biden administration said that although it opposes the project, adding new sanctions could harm U.S. relations with Berlin, one of its most important allies in Europe and a key voice on talks with Russia and Ukraine. Biden and his allies on Capitol Hill also believe the new German coalition government is more skeptical of the Nord Stream 2 project and could be open to working with the United States to kill it without resorting to sanctions.

Last July, the United States and Germany struck a deal over the pipeline in which Washington vowed not to sanction the project further in exchange for agreements from Berlin that both countries would impose steep costs on Russia in the event that it uses its energy dominance as a weapon against Ukraine or Eastern Europe.

Behind the scenes, the Biden administration lobbied wavering Democratic senators not to support the Cruz bill during a closed-door meeting with Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland on Monday evening, several congressional aides told Foreign Policy.

Shaheen, who voted against Cruz’s bill, said the “dynamics on Nord Stream 2 have changed” since she and Cruz first put forward legislation during the Trump administration to stop the pipeline from being built.

“His bill would be a vote to compromise trans-Atlantic unity,” Shaheen said. “It is a vote that breaks the message of bipartisan support in the face of Russia aggression and, furthermore, not just bipartisan support but allied support with the United States and Germany and Western Europe against the threat that Russia poses to Ukraine.”

On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced another sanctions bill, widely viewed as the Democrats’ alternative to Cruz’s legislation. Menendez’s bill would impose sanctions on Russia’s financial sector and political and military leadership, as well as on Nord Stream 2, but only in the event that Moscow launches a renewed attack on Ukraine.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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