WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats backed down Tuesday and removed a hurdle blocking passage of legislation to aid Ukraine and sanction Russia for its bold military incursion into Crimea.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on Ukraine's eastern border, Senate Democrats decided it was more important to denounce Russia, codify sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle and aid Ukraine rather than push right now for International Monetary Fund reforms.
The Senate set a vote on the altered bill for Thursday. The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday approved its version of the measure and it appeared Congress could send its first retort to Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian Peninsula before the end of the week.
Democrats wanted the Ukraine legislation to include provisions to enhance the IMF's lending capacity, but Republicans were opposed. And since more than two weeks have passed since Russia's incursion into Crimea, they decided it was important to move quickly to provide $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and codify sanctions against Putin's inner circle.
Eight Senate Republicans introduced an amendment to the Senate measure to remove the IMF provisions.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he strongly supports IMF reform, but the main thing is to get the aid to Ukraine.
"We have to get IMF reform. But we can't hold up the other," Reid told reporters, adding that the White House was disappointed about removing the IMF language. "As much as I think a majority of the Senate would like to have gotten that done with IMF in it, it was headed to nowhere in the House."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he too understood that political reality. In a speech on the Senate floor, Menendez said Democrats and Republicans need to join together to send a message of support to Ukraine and a message of disapproval to Putin.
"We cannot and should not stand for the violations of international norms that were perpetrated on Crimea by Russia. The world is watching and the world's superpower cannot be seen as incapable of rising to Russia's challenge," Menendez said.
The move signaled a retreat for the Democrats and the Obama administration, which had promoted the IMF provisions.
Holly Shulman, a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, said, "We are deeply disappointed by the news that Republican opposition has forced the Senate to remove the IMF quota and governance reforms from the Ukraine assistance package.
"These reforms, which require no new U.S. financial commitment to the IMF, are critical to preserving the United States' leadership and influence at the IMF, and to strengthening the IMF's financial and governance structures in which the United States has the largest share and veto power."
Republicans were happy to see the IMF reforms removed.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said, "By adding the IMF issue to this debate, the administration is choosing to divide Congress, weakening our unified front and delaying this urgent help."
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, agreed. "In choosing to pick this fight with Congress, the administration is signaling to President Putin a real lack of seriousness in actually addressing the Russian government's conduct."
On the House side, the Foreign Affairs Committee passed its own Ukraine aid bill on Tuesday, without any reference to the international lending body.
The IMF provisions would have increased the power of emerging countries in the IMF and shifted some $63 billion from a crisis fund to a general account the lending body could use for economic stabilization operations around the world.
Republicans have long spurned the administration's attempt to ratify the IMF revisions, saying they would increase the exposure of U.S. taxpayers in foreign bailouts. Making the shift now, opponents argue, also would marginally increase Russia's voting power over the fund's finances.
The Obama administration and Democrats counter that unless the U.S. approves the new rules, Washington will lose its influence at the IMF and hamper the body's ability to avert economic meltdowns in places precisely like Ukraine. The U.S. is the only major country that has yet to sign off on the IMF changes.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.