The bill is so popular that President Joe Biden and 424 members of the bitterly divided House back it.
But the Senate is sputtering, struggling to find the time and consensus to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus – and show that the United States is speaking with one voice in condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
The reason for the delay: An upcoming recess, competing priorities on the Senate floor, scheduling decisions by the Senate majority leader and one GOP senator who refuses to let the bill quickly pass without some changes to the measure.
The Senate’s struggle to quickly pass the overwhelmingly popular bill underscores how difficult it is for Congress to unite behind even the most straightforward measure, when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to call for the US to do more to help Ukraine during its deepening crisis.
“Obviously, we are dealing with – guess what – procedure in the United States Senate,” said Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. “Unless you follow this regularly, it’s hard to appreciate the fact sometimes it’s hard around here to order a 7-Up. … People say, ‘No! We are going to have Cokes. We are going to have Dr. Peppers!’”
The bill is almost certain to become law. The only question is when. It could clear the Senate as soon as this week or near the end of April.
In the Senate, any one senator can block a quick vote since the rules require all 100 to consent to a time to schedule a vote. If there’s no unanimous agreement, then the Senate majority leader can take steps to set up a vote to overcome the objection over several days.
In this case, Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, has refused to consent to a vote until changes are made to the bill’s language about how to combat human rights abuses. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has refused to use the floor time to overcome the objection, opting instead to schedule votes this week on executive branch nominations and use next week to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.
Senators, in the meantime, are likely to return home for the week this Thursday – in keeping with their usual schedule – and start a two-week Easter recess on April 11.
On Tuesday afternoon, there was some optimism a deal could be reached. Paul and Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin were in talks to see if they could strike a consensus to ease the bill’s passage. Those negotiations could change the bill’s language to satisfy Paul. But tweaking the bill would force the House to once again consider the Senate’s changes, further delaying final passage.
“I think there’s a possibility,” said Paul about making a deal with his colleagues. “They want to get it done. They got a lot of other stuff to do, so that’s the time for me to get a compromise.”
Whether that happens remains to be seen.
“Well, I don’t like the fact that it’s being delayed,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune of South Dakota. “I think that if they’d taken up the bill coming over from the House and put it on the floor and used regular order, it would have passed with a big margin.”
The bill would allow higher tariff rates on some imports from the country and Belarus, where Russia launched some of its troops.
But Paul blocked a quick vote on it last week, arguing against provisions that would expand the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that allows the President to punish human rights abusers. Paul argues that the language is too broad and can be used by the US government to impose sanctions on a wide range of actions that have nothing to do with human rights abuses.
“There’s a very easy compromise,” Paul said. “We should define what serious human rights abuses are. Otherwise we have a definition you can drive a truck through, and you can sanction anybody in the world.”
Democrats have so far resisted calls to make Paul’s changes, saying the Magnitsky Act language in the legislation mirrors what was included in an executive order under former President Donald Trump. They’ve offered a simple amendment vote for Paul, which he hasn’t accepted yet since it would likely fail.
“This is Donald Trump’s executive order language they are complaining about,” Cardin said Tuesday. “I don’t really understand their problem.”
Democrats in talks with Paul over potential deal
Republicans were quick to argue that Schumer could have taken the matter into his own hands if he had made the bill a bigger priority.
On Tuesday, Schumer declined to explain to CNN why he didn’t take the procedural steps to pass the bill this week and instead scheduled nomination votes.
“Sen. Cardin and Sen. Paul are negotiating right now to see if they can come up with a compromise,” Schumer said, a sign that Democrats are hoping that a deal could be within reach.
While Paul is the only one holding up the bill, some Republicans blamed Schumer for not putting it on the floor earlier.
“Schumer knows how to get it done,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of the GOP leadership. “He can complain about it or can do something about it.”
But other Republicans have expressed frustration with Paul’s objections, which come when the party is blaming the Biden administration for not doing enough to counter Russia’s assault on a European democracy.
“For some of the Senate procedures, one person can lock it down,” Thune said. “And so it’s definitely slowed things down, which again, is unfortunate given I think the message that we’re trying to send here.”
The Biden administration has banned imported oil from Russia, restricted certain exports to Russia, sanctioned Russian oligarchs, has pledged to welcome up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine, and approved $1 billion in humanitarian assistance and over another billion in weapons, ammunition, and other “security” assistance. Congress has also passed $13.6 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
But Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell focused much of a speech Tuesday on knocking Biden over his messaging during the conflict. He criticized Biden for saying Putin “cannot remain in power,” only to have the White House maintain he was not advocating for regime change, and for not authorizing a transfer of fighter jets to Ukraine.
“The wild swings between the administration’s overly-cautious, almost skittish official posture and the President’s emotional freelancing is becoming dizzying,” McConnell said.
Asked about his fellow Kentucky Republican’s blockade, McConnell said they are “hoping” they can move forward with the original bipartisan plan.
“We’re not there yet,” McConnell conceded. “But I think there’s widespread feeling we ought to do that and hopefully we’ll figure out a way forward.”
Paul is well-known for stopping the Senate’s work on his own. He temporarily expired key sections of the PATRIOT Act in 2015, triggered a brief partial government shutdown in 2018, delayed a bill in 2020 to make lynching a federal crime and blocked votes in 2021 to provide Israel with $1 billion for Iron Dome. (After negotiations, he eventually backed the anti-lynching bill that became law on Tuesday.)
Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, said that he isn’t aware of any other concerns about the bill besides Paul’s. Asked if he had talked with Paul about dropping his objection, North Carolina GOP Sen. Richard Burr said, “That doesn’t always work with Senator Paul.”
“I think it will pass overwhelmingly,” said Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey about the bill.
Paul said on Monday that the Magnitsky Act narrowly defined human rights abuses to “things that all of us would understand” compared to the Senate bill, which he said would expand the President’s power to address broader human rights abuses.
“The United Nations thinks that the internet is a right,” Paul said. “So could you sanction somebody for not giving free internet, not giving an abortion, not giving free housing?”
Asked if he would accept an amendment vote, Paul said, “I have the leverage to make them do it,” before attacking how the Democratic-led Senate works and acknowledging that he’ll “probably” lose this stand.
“So the thing is, they run this place with an iron fist, you never get amendments,” Paul said. “If you get amendments, you’re going to lose. So they’re just like wanting to throw you a token to get you out of the way.”
“We’ll have a real debate, and probably I will lose at that point,” he added. “But I have leveraged a couple weeks.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.