(WASHINGTON) — Shortly after President Joe Biden on Thursday announced new sanctions on Russian banks and elites — but not on Russian President Vladimir Putin himself — a top Senate Democrat pointedly called on him to go further.
“As we seek to impose maximum costs on Putin, there is more that we can and should do. Congress and the Biden administration must not shy away from any options—including sanctioning the Russian Central Bank, removing Russian banks from the SWIFT [international banking] system, crippling Russia’s key industries, sanctioning Putin personally, and taking all steps to deprive Putin and his inner circle of their assets,” Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the administration in a statement.
The Democratic chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Adam Schiff, told reporters Thursday that he, too, would support removing Russia from the SWIFT banking system as many Republicans have called for as tensions worsened.
“We must provide Ukraine with support to defend itself. We also are going to need to, I think, dramatically escalate the sanctions that we place on Russia for this act of naked aggression by the Kremlin dictator. We need to move, I think, to sanction the largest banks in Russia, we have to cut off Russia from the International financing system and its ability to access Western capital. We need to attack its ability to gather sophisticated technology for its weapons systems,” Schiff told reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
Asked why SWIFT was not included in his announcement, Biden argued the actions the U.S. had taken Thursday were more significant, but said it was an option that remained on the table, although allies hadn’t agreed on making the move.
“It’s always an option but right now that’s not the position that the rest of Europe wishes to take,” Biden told reporters Thursday during remarks in the East Room of the White House.
Biden briefed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the evolving situation in Ukraine during a phone call Thursday afternoon.
McConnell described it as “a briefing from the president for the four of us on the events of today and the way forward” but declined to share further details. He noted that he urged the president, both publicly and privately, to “ratchet up the sanctions.”
A spokesman to Pelosi confirmed to ABC News that the call was “classified” in nature.
Across the board, Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of Congress say the administration must act boldly and with more urgency to punish Putin and Russian oligarchs as the deadly attack in Ukraine unfolds.
And while many Republicans have been critical of Biden’s steps up to this point, the actual invasion attack has seen many joining with Democrats in calls to sideline partisan squabbling in the name of NATO unity.
While agreeing to do so, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, couldn’t resist seizing an “I told you so” moment. In a statement released just moments after news of Russia’s advancement into Ukraine broke Wednesday evening. Romney harkened back to his 2012 presidential debate with President Barack Obama, who mocked Romney for citing Russia as the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.”
At the time, Obama quipped on stage that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
Ten years later, Romney argued that Putin’s prior aggression laid the groundwork for the current conflict he’s waging in Ukraine. “The ’80s called’ and we didn’t answer,” he said.
Still, the statement ended on a unifying note, calling on America and its allies to “protect freedom” by working in tandem to impose harsh sanctions on Russia.
Many GOP lawmakers are modeling Romney’s tone, calling for unity despite disagreement with the administration.
In a statement Thursday, following Biden’s remarks, McConnell acknowledged Romney’s consistent warnings about Ukraine, but like Romney, looked ahead.
“Moving forward, how America leads the response from all freedom-loving nations will be measured carefully by our friends, by our adversaries, and by history itself,” McConnell said. “We cannot afford to fail this test.”
Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee also released a statement early Thursday going after Putin. Earlier in the week, they had been more critical of Biden.
“The last few hours have laid bare for the world to witness the true evil that is Vladimir Putin. Today, we stand resolute with the Ukrainian people and resolve to provide them with the tools they need to withstand and repel this unprovoked attack. Every drop of Ukrainian and Russian blood spilled in this conflict is on Putin’s hands, and his alone,” the Republican members said.
GOP divided on attacking Biden
But some Republicans are choosing a more divisive rhetoric, largely unseen in previous international conflicts.
Among a newer breed of Republicans, many of whom have found themselves closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, criticism is extending beyond Putin and to Biden himself.
The third-ranking House Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik, slammed Biden in a statement Thursday.
“After just one year of a weak, feckless, and unfit President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief, the world is less safe. Rather than peace through strength, we are witnessing Joe Biden’s foreign policy of war through weakness. For the past year, our adversaries around the world have been assessing and measuring Joe Biden’s leadership on the world stage, and he has abysmally failed on every metric,” Stefanik said.
It was only later in her statement, Stefanik turned her ire to Putin, saying “Vladimir Putin is a war criminal and deranged thug.”
“Joe Biden has shown nothing but weakness and indecision,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said in a tweet Wednesday night. “Now is the time to show strong purpose.”
GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene blamed the Russian invasion of Ukraine entirely on Biden himself, while giving kudos to his predecessor.
“Everything happening to the poor people of Ukraine is a direct result of a WEAK America under the WEAK leadership of Joe Biden. Under President Trump, America was STRONG and the world was at PEACE,” Greene tweeted Thursday.
Top Senate Democrat Schumer said that this sort of political rhetoric from Republicans attacking Biden at this moment in time, “weakens the attempts we are making to be unified against Putin.”
“That is not the time for this rhetoric,” Schumer said. “Americans should be united as we were united at 9/11, as we have been united in the past.”
House Republican Leader McCarthy released a statement Thursday going after Putin — this time not choosing to level his attacks at the sitting U.S. president, which he often does.
“Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is reckless and evil. The United States stands with the people of Ukraine and prays for their safety and resolve. Putin’s actions must be met with serious consequence. This act of war is intended to rewrite history and more concerning, upend the balance of power in Europe. Putin must be held accountable for his actions,” McCarthy said in a statement.
While Republicans have condemned Putin, one major player in the Republican Party has refused to do so — the former president of the United States.
He called Putin’s actions “genius” during a radio interview Tuesday.
“I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. So Putin is now saying it’s independent, a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s going to go in and be a peacekeeper,” Trump said on the “The Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show.”
At a Mar-a-Lago fundraiser Wednesday, he continued his praise of Putin, calling him “pretty smart” in “taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions.”
How will Congress respond to Russia?
Whether and how to further punish Russia and supply aid for Ukraine will be some of the first challenges Congress will have to attend to when it returns from its week-long recess on Monday.
They say they are united in their resolve.
“Our Congress is united that we will reply to this with both standing firm by NATO continuing to provide armaments to the Ukrainians to defend itself,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said Thursday. “We will launch the most unprecedented level of economic sanctions targeting oligarchs, people close to Putin, the banking system, the ability to get technology into the Russian defense industry.”
But differences in policy will be laid bare when members return next week and it’s not yet clear if Congress will act separately from the administration to impose additional sanctions.
Negotiations on a bipartisan sanctions bill stalled last week, and Republicans, led by the Foreign Relations Committee top Republican Jim Risch, proposed a separate partisan bill they still hope will go forward.
“Diplomacy has failed. Those of us who called for more definitive action from the Biden Administration and our allies have unfortunately been proven right,” Risch said Thursday. “We cannot afford to wait any longer, we must take more decisive action.”
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