Deal with Ted Cruz paves way for fight against Russian pipeline in early 2022

WASHINGTON – A Senate deal set the stage for a vote in January on whether to sanction the company behind a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, complicating the Biden administration’s efforts to prevent a Russian invasion of the Ukraine.

The upcoming vote means the New Year in Congress will start in part with a controversial debate over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which the Biden administration opposes but has not used all of its powers to stop for fear of damage vital relations with Germany.

The $ 11 billion pipeline was completed in September but is awaiting certification to become operational. Leaders of the new German government coalition have said they will not let gas flow if Russian President Vladimir V. Putin invades Ukraine, along which he has massed up to 100,000 troops.

The Senate deal, which was struck Friday night, was a reluctant concession by Democrats to Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who delayed the confirmation of dozens of President Biden’s candidates to protest what he called Mr. Biden’s weak opposition to the pipeline. Mr Cruz and others insist that Nord Stream 2 will provide Russia with an injection of money and dangerous control over Europe’s energy supplies, while potentially costing the Ukrainian government around $ 3 billion in money. annual transit charges from a similar pipeline crossing its territory that Russia could bypass.

“Major victory”, wrote Mr. Cruz on Twitter. “When the Senate meets again, we will finally have a vote on sanctioning Putin’s pipeline.”

It’s a vote the Biden administration hoped to avoid. But in return, Mr Cruz agreed to step down and allow confirmation of 36 of Mr Biden’s State Department and Treasury Department candidates, including 28 ambassadors – some of whom were appointed years ago. month. Among them was Mr. Biden’s choice for Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, as well as envoys to France, Poland and the European Union.

Majority leader Senator Chuck Schumer of New York City promised Mr Cruz that he would hold a vote on the legislation by January 14, paving the way for a possible Senate reprimand against Mr Biden. Cruz was furious when the Biden administration in May lifted congressional sanctions against Nord Stream AG, the operator of the pipeline, and its German managing director.

Biden officials said at the time that while they opposed building the pipeline, which will pump gas from the Russian Arctic to Germany via the Baltic Sea, the project was nearing completion by the time Mr. Biden took office and virtually unstoppable. At this point, White House officials say, the cost of friction with the German government outweighs any potential loss to Mr. Putin.

German officials said the project would not be officially certified and operational for several months. In a briefing to reporters at the White House last week, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that means the pipeline “is not leverage for Putin. Indeed, it is a lever for the West, because if Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through this pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.

But some analysts say the pipeline may be less important to Mr Putin than his long-standing plans on Ukrainian territory.

As part of the deal with Mr Schumer, Mr Cruz’s bill will require 60 votes to pass – a possibility given that many Democrats in the Senate oppose the Nord Stream project. It is not clear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would take action after going through the Senate; it could depend on the de-escalation of Mr Putin’s military presence along the Ukrainian border. A December 7 call between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin did little to ease the situation, and last week the Kremlin issued a series of demands that Biden officials called largely unacceptable.

Delaware Democrat Senator Chris Coons and a close ally of Biden who helped negotiate the deal, said he would wait to see the final wording of the measure and speak with Biden officials before deciding how he would vote. A State Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Coons said he recently met Olaf Sholz, who succeeded Angela Merkel as German Chancellor this month, in Berlin. He noted the commitment of the new German government not to certify the pipeline until 2022.

“Imposing sanctions on a close ally like Germany while it is moving in the right direction is something I would not do lightly,” Coons said.

In a separate agreement Thursday, the Senate confirmed that R. Nicholas Burns was Mr. Biden’s choice for the United States’ ambassador to China.

The vote followed a different deal, this one with Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, which blocked Mr. Burns’ confirmation. Rubio had insisted that the Senate pass his bill requiring US companies to prove that goods made in China’s Xinjiang region were not produced with the forced labor of Uyghur Muslims.

In total, the Senate confirmed 85 candidates last week, according to the White House, which said that made an annual total of 40 more than in President Donald J. Trump’s first year in office.

For months, Mr Cruz, citing the pipeline project, infuriated Senate Democrats and Biden officials by using delaying tactics against State Department and Treasury Department candidates to prevent the usual practice of confirmations rapid Senate by unanimous vote.

Mr Cruz has said in the past that he will allow more candidates to be confirmed if Congress sends a bill sanctioning the Nord Stream project to Mr Biden.

According to the White House, 287 of Mr. Biden’s government candidates remain unconfirmed, including dozens of ambassadors and other State Department officials.

Mr Coons said he hopes last week’s breakthrough will lead to more confirmations soon.

“We need a team of senior officials at the State Department and the United Nations, and ambassadors around the world,” Coons said. “And while I respect that senators from both parties have the right to use the occasional hold to force a political discussion, I think it has gotten out of hand.”

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