The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced legislation Wednesday to allow the U.S. to seize frozen Russian assets to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction.
The top Democrat and Republican on the panel were confident that Senate leadership viewed the legislation, called the REPO Act, as a priority for passage amid stalled efforts to deliver on further assistance for Ukraine.
“Leadership’s committed to move this as quickly as it can. It very well could be a caboose on a bill that goes through here quickly,” said Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the committee and sponsor of the REPO Act.
If signed into law, the legislation would mark the first time the U.S. has seized foreign assets of a country it is not at war with. Lawmakers said the Biden administration is supportive of the bill.
“They want to have this in their toolkit,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chair of the committee.
An administration official told The Hill that “Generally speaking, we are supportive of having domestic legislative authorities that will give us flexibility as we continue to discuss with partners and allies on how best to cease Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and ensure Russia pays for the damage it has caused.”
The official continued, “We are also engaged in active conversations with our allies and partners, including the [Group of Seven], to ensure we are all coordinated in making Russia pay.”
Cardin succeeded in passing his amendment to the bill in the committee meeting, an effort to address what he said are concerns around challenges in American courts to the U.S. government seizure of another foreign government’s assets and not draw out the process.
“I think it’s naive to think there won’t be legal challenges. … The amendment that I was able to get in will shorten any legal challenge,” Cardin said.
“What this allows, the administration to get those issues resolved early in the process and therefore can move forward with this tool. And it also gives our partners around the world confidence that we’re on a sound legal basis when we move forward.”
The U.S. holds about $5 billion to $6 billion in Russian central bank assets that it froze in February 2022 following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s launch of a full-scale invasion into Ukraine.
The action was taken in coordination with partners in Europe, Canada and Japan, with total frozen Russian central bank assets held overseas said to amount to about $300 billion.
Group of Seven (G7) nations, the priority bloc supporting Ukraine, has yet to come to a consensus on using frozen Russian assets for Ukraine’s reconstruction. But the U.S. move on cementing language and passing legislation is viewed as a priority step in getting other countries on board.
Baked into the text is for the executive branch to certify to Congress that it is coordinating with G7 partners and others on working together on the seizure of Russian assets for Ukraine’s reconstruction.
“The body of the bill itself is very clear about the need for multilateral action not just with G7 — it also mentions Australia and a couple other areas where there are Russian assets,” Cardin said.
“So it only works if we can get those who have the largest amounts of Russian assets to work with us. That is made very clearly in the body of the bill.”
Cardin said the priority issue is for the Senate to follow through passing President Biden’s National Security Supplemental, which is to include $60 billion for Ukraine but is held up over negotiations on changes to U.S. immigration policy.
“We gotta get this supplemental done. Ukraine has to have it. It’s a matter of survival,” Cardin said, adding that the REPO bill is a way to impose more pressure on Russia to remove its troops and “accepting responsibility for the damages that they’ve caused.”