The Senate’s twin votes came together quickly as the chamber was staring down a two-week recess and as lawmakers were reeling over images that emerged last weekend showing Ukrainian civilians in mass graves and lying dead in the streets with their hands bound after apparently being tortured.
All 100 senators voted for both bills on Thursday morning, further underscoring the bipartisan unity that has defined the U.S. response to Russia’s aggression.
“No nation whose military is committing war crimes deserves free-trade status with the United States,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “No vile thug like Putin deserves to stand as an equal with the leaders of the free world.”
The House approved the trade sanctions and oil embargo last month with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, but they languished for three weeks in the upper chamber as senators raised objections to moving quickly on the legislation. Senate leaders made only minor changes to the House-passed bills, so the House is expected to approve both pieces of legislation again later Thursday afternoon and send them to Biden’s desk.
Biden moved to ban Russian oil imports last month after bipartisan pressure from Capitol Hill. Despite the fact that the U.S. imports relatively little Russian oil, the White House has been concerned about the effects of reduced oil supply on rising gas prices — and that key European allies have significant dependencies on Russian energy. But the administration eventually reversed course after Speaker Nancy Pelosi drew up plans for the House to vote on legislation implementing an embargo.
Some lawmakers argued that it was no longer necessary for Congress to act on the oil ban given that Biden had already done so via executive order, but proponents believe it is important to codify the punishment and give lawmakers a say in the matter. The legislation also allows Congress to vote to re-impose the ban if, down the road, lawmakers are uncomfortable with an executive branch plan to allow the purchases of Russian oil again.
“It’s important to recognize this legislation is not redundant,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who led the effort in the upper chamber. “It’s ensuring substantive steps will be taken so that the sanctions stay in with some level of reliability.”
The twin pieces of legislation stalled in the Senate mostly due to objections from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who took issue with broad language in the trade sanctions bill centering on human-rights sanctions. Setting up an immediate vote in the Senate requires consent from all 100 senators, and Schumer didn’t want to take up valuable floor time as he pushed to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court before the recess.
Paul argued that those provisions could be interpreted to allow Biden to impose sanctions based on political ideology rather than human-rights abuses. Senate leaders eventually caved to Paul’s demands, but other senators threw up roadblocks to quick passage.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), for example, demanded a vote on his bill to establish a World War II-style weapons program for Ukraine. That legislation, known as lend-lease, passed unanimously on Wednesday night.
Josh Siegel contributed to this report.