By Richard Cowan and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Several Democratic U.S. senators said late on Monday, after meeting with Biden administration officials, that they believe sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline backed by Republican Senator Ted Cruz could harm relations with Germany.
Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and President Joe Biden’s global energy security adviser Amos Hochstein met on Monday behind closed doors with about 10 Democratic senators who have been undecided on the Cruz bill.
The legislation is expected to get a Senate vote this week after both parties struck a deal last month, in which Cruz released his hold on dozens of Biden ambassador nominations. The deal requires the bill to get 60 votes — a high hurdle in the 50-50 Senate. The bill would also have to pass in the House and be signed by President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
Several senators told reporters that the administration officials were persuasive. Senator Chris Murphy said they made the case that Cruz’s bill could harm relations with Germany’s new government right when Washington needs its support to pressure Russia against an invasion of Ukraine.
“I think their case is right,” Murphy said. “The Cruz amendment would make a Russian invasion more likely. There’s no sense to be sanctioning the new German government when they have just switched their position to finally put the pipeline on ice.”
The pipeline to take Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany was finished in September but may not be approved until the middle of the year after Germany has slowed approvals.
Germany’s ruling coalition is divided over Nord Stream 2, with the Social Democrats supporting the pipeline as the country is hungry for natural gas after shutting nuclear and coal plants. But one of its junior coalition partners, the Greens, oppose Nord Stream 2.
U.S. and Russian officials met on Monday in Geneva as Washington tries to dissuade Moscow from a new invasion of Ukraine after massing nearly 100,000 troops along its border.
The Biden administration has opposed Nord Stream 2 as it would bypass Ukraine, depriving it of lucrative transit fees, and potentially undermining its struggle against Russia.
But last year the administration lifted sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG, the company controlling the project, to smooth relations with Germany and other European allies that became soured after former President Donald Trump ditched agreements on climate, Iran and other issues.
Senator Dick Durbin said legislation being formed by fellow Democratic Senator Robert Menendez is preferable and sends a “strong message to Putin.” Still, Durbin said he did not know when a vote on Menendez’s legislation would come.
Senator Tim Kaine, said if an alternate to the Cruz bill emerges he wants to compare them. Kaine said he had a number of worries about a measure in Cruz’s bill that would allow Congress to vote to reinstate sanctions should the president waive them.
Ned Price, the State Department spokesperson said last week Cruz’s bill would undermine the united front in response to Russia.
Senator Jon Tester did not say whether he would vote against the Cruz bill, but said the Biden officials made a “very salient” point about needing Germany’s support against a reinvasion of Ukraine by Russia.
“The message was it would hurt the negotiations that have been going on with Germany … in regards to Russia’s impact on Ukraine,” Tester said. “We got to make sure if we’re going to do sanctions, the sanctions are focused on the problem and not on collateral,” Tester said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Richard Cowan, additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)