It's been a rough couple of weeks for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
First, Cruz groveled before Fox News' Tucker Carlson , claiming he mistakenly used the word "terrorists" to describe Jan. 6 rioters. In reality, he's consistently used that word at least 17 other times for a year.
Then there was the Jan. 6 conspiracy theory that Cruz pushed about a former Marine named Ray Epps , whom right-wing publications proposed was working as an undercover FBI agent. The theory turned out to, indeed, be fake news.
Now, Cruz's most serious policy proposal this Congress has turned into yet another partisan points-scoring, own-the-libs contest—just with international implications this time.
For months, Cruz has dug his heels in on trying to get sanctions passed on Nord Stream 2, a long-sought natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. It's an issue lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been vocal about; many see the pipeline as a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin and want to stamp it out of existence.
But Cruz's most serious campaign on Capitol Hill this year—passage of a bill enacting sanctions on entities working on Nord Stream 2—ended with a failed messaging vote. After leaving the vote open for nearly seven hours, the legislation was rejected Thursday, 55-44, with a handful of Democrats joining Republicans in support. Unfortunately, for Cruz, the bill needed 60 votes to pass.
With Russia amassing hundreds of thousands of troops near Ukraine's border, politicians have been warming up to a revised approach from the Biden administration to use the gas pipeline as leverage against Putin. And yet, Cruz and many other Republicans refused to adjust their position.
The Biden administration's effort to get Putin to back down from invading Ukraine has been stuck in second gear for weeks now, with Putin leaving troops along the border while denying he has ambitions to invade and proposing all sorts of demands that the administration and European allies will never meet.
With Putin seemingly vacillating, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has emerged as one of the major pieces of leverage the United States has to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine. And even though plenty of Republicans and Democrats had previously supported blocking the gas pipeline, most Democrats see that the circumstances have changed and believe Cruz's proposal would now do more harm than good.
"It won't stop Russia from invading Ukraine. In fact, it will do the exact opposite," Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) said of Cruz's legislation on Thursday. "It will make the completion more likely and it will be a gift to Russia, dividing us from our European allies right at the moment we need to be in solidarity."
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) released a competing bill this week, and proponents it say it's the sensible option. It would give the administration more wiggle room in trying to hold the pipeline over Putin's head. It would label the pipeline a "malign influence" tool of the Russian government and would have the government review "all available and appropriate measures" to prevent it from "becoming operational," including sanctions.
Menendez's bill would also require the State Department to reassess whether the current waiver on sanctions "remains in the best interest of United States national security, especially in light of the Russian Federation's military build-up along the border of Ukraine."
The White House is backing Menendez's bill because Cruz's bill would dismantle any attempt at leverage over Putin, a senior administration official told The Daily Beast.
"It is leverage for the West, because if Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine," the senior administration official said. "If sanctions are imposed right now… then this would be one less consideration in [Russia's] calculus. The deterrent potential of sanctions or shutting down the pipeline would be lost."
Meanwhile, the White House sees Cruz's proposal as just another political ploy that would jam up diplomacy.
White House National Security spokesperson Emily Horne told The Daily Beast that Cruz's legislation would not "counter further Russian aggression or protect Ukraine."
"Instead, it will undermine our efforts to deter Russia and remove leverage the United States and our allies and partners possess in this moment all to score political points at home," Horne said in a statement. "And it would come at a moment where we need to be closely united with our European partners, including Germany. It makes no sense."
While Cruz has said Democrats' willingness to back Menendez's bill is a prime example of them letting go of their convictions in order to just back the party line, Murphy sees Cruz's efforts to bungle the Nord Stream 2 vote as emblematic of Republicans just trying to stamp out a win for Democrats at any cost—even when a breakthrough with Putin is on the line.
"It’s consistent with the GOP approach to foreign policy under Biden. They root for failure to hurt Biden," Murphy said in a tweet .
The issue isn't cut and dry for Democratic lawmakers, however. Democrats have long opposed letting the pipeline go forward, and many have seen it as a geopolitical win for Putin that would help him flex influence across Europe—hence why a handful of Democrats supported Cruz’s bill Thursday afternoon.
With Menendez's legislation, however, Democrats can vote for a bill with the air of sanctions that doesn't deal Biden a political blow.
"There is no question that there is a bipartisan determination in the United States to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from becoming operational and used as a weapon by Putin against our European allies," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) said in a statement. "This legislation upholds that resolve without undermining the diplomatic progress being made."
Shaheen added that Putin's "escalatory behavior" against Ukraine demanded that "we evolve our response."
"We cannot use yesterday's plans for crises we face today," she said.
But that seems to be Cruz's exact solution. He has been trying to block Nord Stream 2 since at least 2020, and he's been so adamant about preventing the gas pipeline from coming online that he was blocking votes on nominees to the State Department for months over the issue, threatening to hold them up until a Nord Stream 2 sanctions vote took place.
Eventually, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) relented and gave Cruz his vote, in part to get those nominees slotted into their roles. In true Cruz fashion though, all the Texas senator was able to do was insist on being dealt a loss.
Russia , of course, has maintained an interest in going after Ukraine, and analysts are wary to suggest that a sanction on Nord Stream 2—whenever it comes—would do much to Putin's calculus.
But knowing what Russia is up to isn't an easy task. In multiple rounds of meetings this week, officials emerged with various reads on what Putin is thinking. Early in the week, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov claimed "we have no intention to invade Ukraine."
And just days later, Russia wouldn't commit to a de-escalation during a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Wednesday.
Updated at 9:50 p.m. to reflect the Senate rejecting the bill.
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