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Ukraine crisis draws new resolve from bipartisan lawmakers — with some GOP critics

As the threat of Russia launching a war against Ukraine grew in recent weeks, congressional lawmakers struggled to reach a consensus on what kind of sanctions package they could piece together.

After days of talks, for example, the Senate left for a recess last week with only the approval of a symbolic resolution rebuking Russia for its escalating aggression against Ukraine.

Now, lawmakers have returned from several overseas trips to meet with U.S. allies sounding a new bipartisan note against a rising threat led by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Among them is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who joined dozens of Democratic and Republican lawmakers who traveled to last week's Munich Security Conference.

"The focus was Ukraine," Pelosi told reporters on Wednesday. "All united in our support for the transatlantic alliance, NATO, all of us united in being there, to remove all doubt in Putin — or anyone else's mind — that we were acting as one."

The annual event often draws bipartisan congressional attendance. But the trip was planned well before a new Russian threat had taken hold, putting Ukraine at the center of discussions, Pelosi said, who also took aim at Putin.

"It's stunning to see in this day and age a tyrant roll into a country. This is the same tyrant who attacked our democracy in 2016," Pelosi said.

Now, a bipartisan coalition of members say they are joining forces to address the crisis when Congress returns next week, with plans to issue an emergency supplemental bill to aid NATO allies and Ukraine.

"The emergency supplemental needs to help our allies, needs to provide more assistance to the Ukraine. We need to create a mechanism for Putin and his cronies to pay a heavy price to deter further aggression," South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters earlier this week.

Graham, along with Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, led a separate bipartisan congressional delegation to the Munich Security Conference. Upon their return this week, the group of more than 20 senators and House members issued a joint statement pledging to put together the emergency aid package in the face of Putin's further escalation of hostilities against Ukraine.

"No matter what happens in the coming days, we must assure that the dictator Putin and his corrupt oligarchs pay a devastating price for their decisions," the group said, which also includes Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Ohio GOP Rep. Mike Turner and Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, among others.

Graham also told reporters he's "been on the phone with Democratic senators for the last two days" discussing that emergency supplemental bill, which he said he hopes will also include the creation of a task force covering several federal agencies that will go after Russian oligarchs.

"It's now time for that crowd to lose their yachts, lose their luxury apartments and to pay a price for being part of a thuggish group — a nation-state that really is a mafia-state," Graham said.

There is divide in the GOP on how the Biden administration should move forward

Some GOP members say the Russian sanctions issued by the Biden administration so far remain weak and raise concerns about the U.S. response to a Russian war's impact on gas prices.

Many GOP members, while slamming Putin, also take aim at President Biden, saying the president should have issued sanctions tied to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany long ago.

"Sadly, President Biden consistently chose appeasement and his tough talk on Russia was never followed by strong action," House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement with several top GOP members in the lower chamber. "Lethal aid was slow-walked, anti-air and anti-ship capabilities were never directly provided, pre-invasion sanctions proportionate to the aggression Putin had already committed were never imposed, and sanctions on Nord Stream 2 were waived."

On Wednesday, the Biden administration moved to issue sanctions targeting the Russian-owned company that is building the pipeline, drawing support from earlier Republican critics.

Among them were Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Affairs Committee, and Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, the top GOP member on the House Armed Services Committee. Both had signed onto the earlier McCarthy statement criticizing the Biden administration's moves with Russia, and issued a new statement lauding the change.

"We strongly objected to President Biden's decision last May to waive congressionally mandated sanctions on the Russian malign influence Nord Stream 2 project. Today's announcement, while long overdue, reflects years of bipartisan efforts and is a step in the right direction," McCaul and Rogers said.

This, as other Republicans — led by former President Donald Trump — are taking a more extreme stance of praising Putin and Russia. Trump called Putin's moves in Ukraine "savvy"and said the Russian president was making a "smart" move by referencing a rebel-controlled region in Ukraine as "independent."

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Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.