Once a foreign policy partner, Congress fights for unity on Ukraine

WASHINGTON — Since the 1950s, when Senator Arthur Vandenberg declared that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” the titans of Congress have been key partners in American foreign policy, not as ” yes” for presidents, but as co-architects of Pax Americana and the post-WWII order.

But the spiraling conflict in Ukraine has shown how far congressional power over foreign policy has fallen since the death of Sen. John McCain, the move of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. from Capitol Hill and into the House Blanche, and the rise of a brand of partisanship that extends well beyond the water’s edge.

This week, strong voices emerged urging President Biden to act forcefully to counter Russian aggression. But other lawmakers have used the crisis for partisan purposes, lambasting the president and accusing the Biden administration of assaulting President Vladimir V. Putin on his neighbor.

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

“Congress will be prepared to take further action, if additional action is deemed necessary,” House Majority Leader Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said Tuesday afternoon, summarizing the hands-off posture. many of his colleagues.

Such caution is consistent with the legislature’s reluctance to challenge the growing powers of the presidency abroad.

“When you put your name next to an action, you’re going to be judged for that action, and Congress is full of risk-averse people,” said Casey Burgat, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University, who studies Congress and foreign policy. “Foreign policy is a minefield of unintended consequences. It’s hard to put your name next to something when you don’t know how it ends.

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

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said an emergency spending bill and bipartisan sanctions legislation – long delayed in Congress – could pass when lawmakers return from a recess. Presidents Day.

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

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said the talks began Monday evening and were gaining momentum on Tuesday, after senators argued to no avail last month over the size, shape and timing of a measure to impose penalties by law.

The spending bill would increase lethal aid to Ukraine, help the Department of Defense fund troop deployments to NATO countries north and west of Ukraine, and prepare neighbors from Ukraine to refugees. The sanctions bill aims to target the fabulously wealthy oligarchs who supported Mr Putin’s government while sending their children to Western schools and their money to yachts in European ports and luxury apartments in London and in Manhattan.

“There is a consensus among Democrats and Republicans that one of Putin’s world underworld is the lavish lifestyle of the oligarchs he backs to keep him in power,” Graham said. . But he also warned the general Russian public: “You can expect bad things to happen to you.

Mr Blumenthal said Germany’s action this week to halt work on a major gas pipeline linking Russia to Western Europe had removed the biggest sticking point in a sanctions bill. Some Republicans had pushed for sanctions to cripple the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but the Biden administration staunchly opposed such action until a Russian attack, fearing it would rip apart the transatlantic alliance and smash it. harms NATO unity prior to an invasion.

But a month ago, Mr Blumenthal was among senators who vowed a bipartisan vote on Russia sanctions would come within a week or two, to prove US unity and resolve – and marginalizing far-right voices that questioned US interests in the conflict or, worse, siding with Mr. Putin.

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

There is also no guarantee that the unit will now be within reach. Foreign policy has become a graveyard for legislative ambition. Repeated efforts to repeal or revise the military force authorizations passed in 2001 and 2002 gathered momentum, only to die. Republican efforts to reshape or kill President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran have come to naught. Democratic efforts to block President Donald J. Trump’s “emergency” arms sales to the Middle East have also proven unsuccessful.

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

But the current crisis might be different, said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat of Virginia, who has worked unsuccessfully for nine years to reassert Congress’s authority to declare wars. Mr. Biden has broad power to impose crippling sanctions himself, but in some areas, such as cutting off Russia from the international banking computer system known as Swift, Congress may need to legislate. And after talking tough for so long, lawmakers will want to show they can unite.

“Congress would rather not act if it doesn’t have to, and would rather let the president decide if there’s a credible way to do it,” Kaine said. “But at this point, there’s no credible way to do that.”

Mr. Graham, a declared ally of Mr. Trump, said on Tuesday, amid fire from several of his Republican colleagues in the Biden administration: “We have one president at a time. President Biden is the President of the United States, and to the extent that I can help him push Putin away, I will.

But other Republicans have been less gracious.

“Joe Biden has refused to take meaningful action, and his weakness has emboldened Moscow,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, said in a statement on Tuesday, echoing Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who wrote on Monday “Biden-Harris officials are to a very large extent directly responsible for this crisis. »

The Republican leadership of the House itself took a picture of Mr. Biden’s back as he left the East Room of the White House after announcing the latest round of sanctions, and said, “This is what weakness looks like on the world stage.”

The criticisms are nothing new, noted Mark Salter, a longtime aide, adviser and biographer to Mr. McCain. The senator, who died of brain cancer in 2018, was able to drive foreign and military policy from Capitol Hill thanks to the strength of his personality. He could harshly criticize the presidents of both parties, but he was consistent in his plea for a strong transatlantic alliance to confront authoritarianism.

It’s that consistency that frays, Mr. Salter said, and low blows for attention aren’t helpful. Republicans who remained silent as Mr. Trump launched a sustained assault on NATO and leaned toward Mr. Putin are now talking about Mr. Biden’s weakness toward Russia. Leaders failed to condemn isolationist voices in the party such as Mr. Trump and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who asked on Twitter, “What’s up with these neoconservatives drooling over our 18-year-old men who blow themselves up during the war?

At conservative radio tuesdaythe former president praised Mr Putin as “learned” and “brilliant”, echoing the Russian strongman’s description of his invading troops as peacekeepers.

“It is the most powerful force for peace; we could use it on our southern border,” Mr. Trump said, adding: “There were more army tanks than I have ever seen. They will keep the peace well.

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

“Even in the heyday of ‘politics stops at the water’s edge’, if it ever existed, there has always been political expediency,” Mr Salter said. “It’s just a little disgusting at the moment.”

About Michael S. Montanez

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