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Congress votes to suspend normal trade relations with Russia, ban oil imports

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)
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Congress voted overwhelmingly Thursday to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and ban the importation of its oil, ratcheting up the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amid reports of atrocities.

House action came after the Senate approved the two bills with 100-0 votes. The measures now go to President Biden to be signed into law.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly support the substance of the two bills, but they had languished for weeks in the Senate as lawmakers worked to hammer out the final details.

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Biden has already taken executive action to ban Russian oil, liquefied natural gas and coal to the United States. The legislation puts the effort into law.

The bill to end normal trade relations paves the way for Biden to impose higher tariffs on various imports, such as certain steel and aluminum products, further weakening the Russian economy under President Vladimir Putin. It also ensures Moscow ally Belarus receives less favorable tariff treatment.

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Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) said it was important to take action because innocent Ukrainians were being slaughtered even as lawmakers were meeting.

“We have no time to waste and must immediately further punish Vladimir Putin,” Neal said. “What we have witnessed in Bucha over the course of the last 72 hours alone more than justifies the positions we have taken in the past and to be more assertive and aggressive going into the future.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced late Wednesday a breakthrough in negotiations to bring the bills up for votes before lawmakers begin a two-week break. Some lawmakers said that the failure to take final action on the bills was sending the wrong message to allies and to Russia.

“Now, I wish this could have happened sooner, but after weeks of talks with the other side, it’s important that we have found a path forward,” Schumer said.

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Schumer described the images coming out of Ukraine as the war drags as “pure, pure evil. Hundreds of civilians murdered in cold blood.”

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“No nation whose military is committing war crimes deserves free trade status with the United States,” Schumer said.

While there was overwhelming support for suspending preferential trade treatment for Russia, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) blocked speedy consideration of the bill over concerns that its language on who can be sanctioned for human rights abuses is too broad, leaving it ripe for abuse. A few other Republicans had voiced similar concerns.

Schumer opted to let senators work behind the scenes on language that lawmakers from both parties and the White House could accept, rather than chew up floor time to overcome the filibuster.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said that, practically speaking, the impact of the delay on the trade bill is minimal “because there’s virtually no trade right now coming in from Russia.” Still, he said, passage of the bill is key.

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“Messaging is important here and showing action is important,” Cardin said. “You’ve got the Ukrainians on the battlefield every day. The least we can do is get these bills passed.”

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The bills also provides the president with the authority to return normal tariff treatment for Russia as well as resume trade in Russian energy products subject to certain conditions.

While Russian oil makes up only a small part of U.S. imports, it carries a high price for lawmakers in Congress who viewed the ban as a moral test in blocking an economic lifeline for Putin’s regime.

The House votes were not quite unanimous, as they were in the Senate. The bill suspending Russia’s preferential trade status passed by a vote of 420 to 3. The bill banning Russia energy imports passed by 413 to 9.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, tweeted that the president looked forward to signing the bills.

“Thanks to Congress for its partnership and leadership in making Putin a global economic and financial pariah,” Sullivan tweeted.

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The White House says the sanctions that the U.S. and more than 30 other nations have already enacted have stung the Russian economy. It said that experts are now predicting Russia’s gross domestic product will contract as much as 15% this year and that the inflation rate is already above 15%. More than 600 companies have already left Russia.

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“Russia will very likely lose its status as a major economy, and it will continue a long descent into economic, financial, and technological isolation,” the White House report said.

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