Rand Paul standoff throws Russia bills into limbo

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) questions Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House Chief Medical Advisor and Director of the NIAID, during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVID-19 and new emerging variants
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) questions Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House Chief Medical Advisor and Director of the NIAID, during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVID-19 and new emerging variants
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A push to limit trade with Russia, which has broad bipartisan support, is facing a slog in the Senate.

A standoff with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over sanctions language included in the House-passed bill to end normal trade relations with Russia dashed hopes of quickly passing it while President Biden was in Europe and could drag out the legislation for weeks as the Senate faces other looming priorities and an April break.

It's a significant stumbling block for a bill that passed the House in a 424-8 vote - sparking rare unity between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) - only to get snagged despite Senate leaders working out a deal to move it quickly.

Paul is demanding his language linked to human rights-related sanctions get added into the bill. And unlike other recent Russia-related standoffs with the libertarian-leaning GOP senator, he is drawing a red line that he won't let the bills move quickly unless it is added.

"We've just told them they need to put the definition in there of what a human rights abuse is," Paul said. "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."

It's hardly the first time Paul has loomed as a buzzsaw for legislation.

He warned he would block quick passage of a nonbinding resolution offering support for Ukraine and condemning Russia's invasion unless supporters included language specifying it didn't qualify as an authorization of force for Ukraine. The language was added into the resolution, which cleared the Senate by unanimous consent, as well as a separate resolution throwing Senate support behind a war crimes investigation.

And Paul typically gets amendment votes during big government funding debates, in exchange for signing off on speeding up an agreement.

Senate Republicans appeared to think they might be able to win Paul over with a similar tactic on the Russia legislation. Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 GOP senator, initially said Paul had an objection to the trade bill that might be difficult to get him to drop but that "you might be able to solve [them] with an amendment vote or two."

The House has passed two Russia-related bills that are now working their way through the Senate.

The first is the bill to end permanent normal trade relations, known as PNTR. In addition to raising tariffs on goods from Russia and Belarus, it also sets up strict guidelines for when the president can restore normal trade relations, reauthorizes and expands the Global Magnitsky Sanctions and requires the Biden administration to push for Russia's removal from the World Trade Organization.

The House also passed legislation earlier this month to ban the import of Russian oil, codifying actions taken by the administration.

Though the bills passed the House separately - roughly a week apart - they are effectively linked together in the Senate.

Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho), the top Republican on the Finance Committee, initially blocked a quick vote on the House trade bill unless it included the oil ban. In the end, he and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) cut a deal so they would move back-to-back.

But that's effectively trapped both bills unless Paul backs down or Senate leaders agree to let the oil ban legislation, which is expected to be changed and sent back to the House for a second vote, move separately.

Paul is taking issue with the way the Magnitsky sanctions are reauthorized as part of the bill that limits trade with Russia.

The original Magnitsky bill targeted "gross" violations of human rights. The language in the Russia trade bill would expand that to target "serious" human rights violations, codifying language used in a Trump-era executive order.

But Paul wants language put into the bill that would reinsert "gross" violation of human rights and define that as dealing with torture, cruel and inhumane treatment and indefinite detention, though Paul said he was open to including other actions in the definition.

Paul argued that language as written in the House-passed could be used to sanction individuals who deny access to abortions, a concern echoed by a group of House Republicans.

"It has to be in the body of it. I'm not voting on it. It has to be in the body" of the bill, Paul said about the change.

Senate leadership tried to offer him a vote on his proposal if he would, in exchange, agree to speed up both the trade bill and the energy ban. Schumer said that Paul "appears to be the lone senator demanding this" and that he thought all other 99 senators would approve the deal to let the trade and energy package move quickly.

"The question before Sen. Paul is ... is he going to tank PNTR because his interpretation is not forced into his bill? Can Sen. Paul take yes for an answer?" Schumer asked.

Paul, however, rejected that offer.

Paul's demand has infuriated senators who worked on the sanctions language.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) argued that Paul was trying to relitigate a fight that he had already had, and lost, in the Foreign Relations Committee. Cardin also argued that Paul's amendment would undercut sanction efforts.

"The substance of it is that it would not allow us to do what we need to do in regards to Mr. Putin and Russia," Cardin added.

Senate leadership has started the process of putting both bills on the calendar, which will make them available for a vote. But the Senate is also facing a time crunch that absent a deal with Paul could delay the Russia bills for weeks.

The Senate is wrapping up work on a China competitiveness bill on Monday, in a drawn-out procedural step that is aimed at letting the House and Senate formally go to conference to work out their different bills. The Senate is expected to vote to formally go to conference next week and is working on getting votes for both Republicans and Democrats that want to give formal directions to the negotiators.

There are also nominations waiting to be formally scheduled for votes, and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's Supreme Court nomination that Democrats want to bring up on the floor the week of April 4.

That nomination is expected to take days of floor time because Supreme Court nominees are still subjected to 30 hours of debate, as well as the procedural hurdles most nominations face. And the Senate is scheduled to leave town for two weeks starting on April 8.

Schumer could move to force votes on both bills, but that would eat up weeks of floor time to process both the bill limiting trade with Russia and the bill to codify the oil ban absent an agreement with all 100 senators, including Paul, to speed things up.

Asked if Schumer would file cloture, a move that lets him formally force votes, a spokesman pointed back to Republicans questioning if they were "trying to shake Paul loose? Or are they OK letting him hold up PNTR?"

Crapo, asked how they moved the Russia deal, indicated that they could give Paul a vote.

"One work out is we have a vote on it," Crapo said. "The senators have a choice: they can just filibuster, which means it will take a week or 10 days, or they can agree to have a vote on their issue."

But when told by a reporter that Paul wouldn't accept that, the GOP senator acknowledged that was "problematic."