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GOP lawmakers call for stronger sanctions against Russia but some are careful in their criticism of Biden

<i>Ting Shen/Pool/Getty Images</i><br/>Ranking Member Rep. Michael McCaul was among members of the Republican Party who called out Russia's actions.
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Ting Shen/Pool/Getty Images
Ranking Member Rep. Michael McCaul was among members of the Republican Party who called out Russia's actions.

By Melanie Zanona and Daniella Diaz, CNN

Key Republican voices from across Capitol Hill — who have been coordinating their messaging on the crisis in Ukraine — have been purposely measured in their criticism of President Joe Biden in the immediate wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with top GOP lawmakers deliberately critiquing the President’s policy decisions as opposed to lobbing personal attacks, according to Republican sources familiar with the situation.

The thinking among key Republicans is that they want to put on a united front and show solidarity with Ukraine, and they don’t want to give any more ammunition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Another reason they are calibrating their responses: Republicans want to send a clear signal to Biden that he would have bipartisan support if he were to move ahead with more punitive measures. While a bipartisan sanctions package stalled on Capitol Hill this month amid divisions over enacting preemptive sanctions, lawmakers are hoping to revive the issue when they return to Capitol Hill next week.

After a conference call with administration briefers on Thursday, one senator told CNN that “there was broad bipartisan agreement” for emergency funding legislation to help shore up the defense capabilities of NATO allies in the Eastern flank and to assist with refugees and humanitarian needs.

Still, Republicans are calling on Biden to enact immediate, stronger sanctions against Russia for its incursion into Ukraine and lamenting that he didn’t do more to deter an attack before it occurred — even as they are being careful in how they criticize the President at a critical juncture in US foreign policy.

House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mike Rogers and House Intelligence Committee ranking member Mike Turner said in a joint statement that they were “committed to enacting the strongest possible sanctions and export controls to cripple Russia’s ability to make war, punish its barbarity and relegate the Putin regime to the status of an international pariah.”

“We cannot respond like we did in 2008 or 2014. The world must never forget or forgive this heinous act,” the Republicans said in a statement.

The statement came before Biden announced a second and harsher package of sanctions on Russia on Thursday, though many Republicans still felt his latest moves fell short of what they believe is necessary. And they also took issue with Biden suggesting that they wait another month before deciding whether to impose crushing sanctions on Russia’s energy sector.

McCaul and Rogers issued another statement Thursday evening expressing concern that Biden’s latest round of sanctions doesn’t go far enough and urging the House to hold a vote on GOP legislation to impose harsher penalties on Russia.

“Leveling additional banking sanctions and export controls against Russia and Belarus is a necessary move, but these actions are a far cry from the ‘swift and severe’ and ‘unprecedented’ sanctions President Biden promised for months,” they said. “[We] are concerned that President Biden is holding additional U.S. penalties in reserve. The people of Ukraine do not have the luxury of time.”

“The U.S. must have a bipartisan show of strength — when the House is back in session next week, we call for Speaker Pelosi to hold a vote on our NYET Act to impose real costs on the Putin regime,” the lawmakers continued, referencing the name of a Republican-backed sanctions package introduced earlier this month.

Earlier on Thursday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Putin “reckless and evil,” but notably did not hit Biden — or even mention the President — in his statement.

“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,” the California Republican said in a statement Thursday.

Across the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Congress should pass “devastating” sanctions against Russia and increase military spending to counter Russia and China in the long term. But he also said Biden missed an opportunity to stop the invasion of Ukraine.

“Sadly, deterrence after the fact is not deterrence at all. The President should have exercised his extensive authorities to impose certain tough sanctions early enough to actually deter invasion and weaken Russia,” McConnell said. “We should have ensured that the pipeline of lethal aid to Ukraine was flowing far sooner. And we should have sent more reinforcements to support NATO’s eastern flank allies earlier.”

While the Kentucky Republican has criticized some of Biden’s decision-making on Russia, he also has offered some praise for the President, including his announcement that he was sending more troops to NATO allies in Europe.

Meanwhile, the official House GOP Twitter account — which faced blowback earlier this week for attacking Biden amid the crisis in Ukraine — notably tweeted out a quote from McCaul on Thursday in which he said: “Now that we’re in a post-invasion world, I think it’s absolutely critical that we rally together as Americans, both Republican and Democrat.”

But not all Republicans withheld their criticism of the administration. One of the most blistering statements on Thursday came from House GOP conference chairwoman Elise Stefanik, who called Biden “a weak, feckless, and unfit President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief” in a statement about the invasion.

She added: “If peace is to prevail, the United States and NATO must respond with the only language Putin understands – strength. It’s long past time President Biden take swift and devastating action to cripple the Russian economy and impose severe irrecoverable consequences on the corrupt regime of Vladimir Putin.”

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Russia hawk in the GOP, also put out a statement that was harshly critical of Biden on Thursday, saying he “misread the moment.”

“We should not be seeking permission from allies to go after Putin and his cronies,” Graham said. “We should move ahead forcefully against Putin, a war criminal, and demand our allies join us!”

Graham also voiced support for passing an emergency aid package to support Ukraine as soon as next week.

“I look forward to working in Congress with Republicans and Democrats to pass an emergency supplemental to help Ukraine,” he added. “How we deal with Putin determines what happens in other regions like Asia and the Middle East. We need to get this done in the Senate next week.”

Moments after the news that Russia invaded Ukraine, GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said in a statement: “We needed sanctions months ago to ward off exactly this type of action. Now that Putin has taken these steps we must implement strong, primary and secondary sanctions immediately.”

Democrats also called for more to be done. While Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez praised Biden’s sanctions announcement, the New Jersey Democrat also said that “there is more that we can and should do,” echoing some of his GOP colleagues.

“Congress and the Biden administration must not shy away from any options — including sanctioning the Russian Central Bank, removing Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system, crippling Russia’s key industries, sanctioning Putin personally, and taking all steps to deprive Putin and his inner circle of their assets,” he said in a statement.

During Thursday’s briefing with lawmakers, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen defended not cutting Russia off from SWIFT, the secure messaging system that serves as the backbone of global banking payments, trades and currency exchanges, according to a person familiar with the call. She argued that it was even better to directly target the big Russian banks, though she added that “all actions remain at Treasury’s disposal.” A separate source confirmed SWIFT is not off the table, but defended the decision not to take Russia off the platform on Thursday, arguing that Russia would find other ways to communicate.

During initial negotiations on economic sanctions against Russia, Democratic and Republican lawmakers were split about whether to have preemptive sanctions to deter Putin from invading Ukraine. Republicans wanted preemptive sanctions and Democrats were opposed.

In the end, senators were unable to reach a deal for pre-emptive sanctions and instead the chamber approved last week a symbolic resolution condemning Russia.

When asked by a reporter about Republicans’ rhetoric about how this wouldn’t have happened if Biden weren’t “weak,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer dismissed the criticism during a press conference in New York Thursday.

“I think that is not the time for this rhetoric. America should be united as we were united at 9-11, as we have been united in the past,” he said. “That kind of rhetoric is uncalled for and weakens the attempts that we are making to get to be unified against Putin.”

As of 6:30 p.m. ET Thursday, Russian mechanized forces that had entered through Belarus were around 20 miles away from Kyiv, top Biden administration officials told House lawmakers in a Ukraine briefing, according to two sources on the call.

The administration officials described another Russian element, which entered Ukraine from Russia, being a bit farther away, but indicated that both were headed toward Kyiv with the goal of encircling the city and potentially decapitating the Ukrainian government, according to one of the sources on the call, a lawmaker.

Biden briefed the top four Congressional leaders Thursday afternoon on the situation in Ukraine, McConnell said at a press conference in Kentucky. McConnell, McCarthy, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all participated in the classified discussion.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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CNN’s MJ Lee, Michael Callahan, Manu Raju, Ted Barrett, Zachary Cohen, Kylie Atwood and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.

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