The even harsher sanctions Congress is pushing for Russia, briefly explained

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi leaves a Democratic caucus meeting at the Capitol on March 8, 2022, in Washington, DC. Congress is working to pass a government spending bill before funding expires on March 11. | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Lawmakers back Biden’s energy imports ban — but want more.

On Wednesday, the House is slated to pass the first of multiple bills Congress is considering to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

The vote on the Suspending Energy Imports from Russia Act is meant to compliment the executive action President Joe Biden, under pressure from Congress, announced Tuesday that blocks Russian imports of oil, gas and coal. Together, the bill, Biden’s latest sanctions, as well as those the White House has previously instituted, aim to undermine Russia economically to deter it from continuing its assault on Ukraine.

The new congressional sanctions would bar energy imports from Russia. They would also expand upon Biden’s actions by requiring a review of Russia’s involvement in the World Trade Organization, a move that could affect its membership in the group. Wednesday’s vote is expected to succeed by a wide margin, the latest evidence of significant bipartisan support for energy-related penalties on Russia, despite the impact they could have on US fuel prices.

The bill is among a number of bipartisan measures that have emerged in Congress in recent days, as lawmakers seek to hold Russia accountable and push for an even stronger response from the White House. Though the bill is expected to garner solid support in the House, it’s not yet clear whether the Senate will take it up, however.

“The Congress commends the President for announcing action to stop the import of Russian energy products into the United States — which we will support by passing strong, bipartisan legislation to that effect,” Pelosi wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter.

A rundown of the key bills Congress is considering

  • Energy imports ban: The legislation up for a House vote is intended to demonstrate bipartisan support for an oil and energy imports ban. It is also broader than Biden’s initial ban in that it calls for a review of Russia’s participation in the World Trade Organization, which could lead to the country being removed from the group. Were that to happen, other countries that are part of the WTO could raise tariffs on imports from Russia and economically isolate the country even further.

The proposal would also reauthorize and bolster the Magnitsky Act, which enables the US government to sanction individuals and entities that have committed human rights violations by denying them entry into the country, freezing assets held by US financial institutions and preventing Americans from engaging in business transactions with them. The bill would strengthen the act by classifying Russia’s actions in Ukraine as a human rights violation that could warrant additional sanctions.

Despite the bipartisan backing for it, there’s also been disagreements over what the House bill should contain. One point of contention was a proposal to repeal permanent normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus, Axios reports. This tenet was central to a bipartisan deal struck between the top members of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee on trade penalties, and is one that Republicans have pushed to keep. The White House, however, has said it’s concerned about the impact the provision could have on US allies, and has asked that it be removed.

House Democrats ultimately took it out, which upset some Republicans. Any loss of GOP support shouldn’t hurt the bill in the House, but could cause the bill to stall in the Senate, where Democrats need the cooperation of at least 10 Republican senators to pass legislation.

  • Freezing Russia’s gold reserves: A bill from Sens. Angus King (I-ME), John Cornyn (R-TX), Bill Hagerty (R-TN), and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) aims to go after Russia’s gold reserves. Biden’s financial sanctions have made it difficult for Russia’s central bank to access foreign currency, but it has $130 billion in gold reserves that it needs to find buyers for to prop up its struggling economy.

The legislation would sanction US financial institutions and individuals who buy or sell gold from Russia’s Central Bank, making it more difficult for Russia to liquidate its gold. According to Axios, lawmakers aim to attach this measure to upcoming appropriations bills this week, but it’s unclear if it will be included.

  • Aid to Ukraine: Lawmakers are also scrambling to add roughly $14 billion in funding to help refugees, provide medical supplies, purchase food, and support military weaponry for Ukraine as part of upcoming appropriations bills. It’s an effort that has strong bipartisan support, but one that’s dependent on Congress approving the broader appropriations package, which lawmakers recently announced an agreement on.

There’s optimism that a bipartisan desire to help Ukraine will help these bills move quickly. For now, lawmakers plan to vote on both the appropriations legislation and a continuing resolution that would keep the government open through March 15, so Congress has a few more days to complete its work without the threat of a shutdown.

Democrats and Republicans have different ideas for addressing fuel costs

While the US is not nearly as dependent on Russian oil as many European countries, the House’s ban would likely drive fuel prices up further, CBS News reports. Lawmakers have acknowledged this likelihood, but Democrats and Republicans have very different views on how to address it.

Many Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ed Markey (D-MA), have noted that this is an opportunity invest more in clean energy sources like solar power and wind power, though it would take months, if not years, to reap the benefits of any new green energy appropriations. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have called for higher taxes on oil producers’ “windfall profits,” and warned that large oil companies could take this moment to price gouge consumers.

Some Democrats, including Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), have also said they’re interested in temporarily suspending the federal gas tax to alleviate costs on consumers.

Republicans, meanwhile, have called for more investments into US oil and gas production, which isn’t expected to translate to immediate relief, either.

“We don’t need to be buying Russian energy, but we don’t need to be buying Iranian energy or Venezuelan energy. We need to produce energy of all forms and all types here in the US and do it better than anybody else in the world,” Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) said at a recent press conference.

Republicans have argued that Biden should reconsider his decision to cancel the Keystone Pipeline, and have taken this opportunity to blame his administration for rising fuel costs. Experts note, however, that any new oil from the Keystone Pipeline would have had a minimal impact on current gas prices.

Lawmakers have yet to coalesce around a legislative response to rising fuel costs, but it’s likely to be a central focus as Russia’s invasion — and the surge in gas prices that have accompanied it — continue. Given the differences in Republican and Democrats’ positions, however, it’s not expected to be as bipartisan as the push for more sanctions.