Congress on track to pass Ukraine aid bill

AP News
Posted: Mar 26, 2014 4:28 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House and Senate worked Wednesday to quickly resolve their differences and send the White House a bill to sanction Russia and aid Ukraine to show U.S. displeasure with President Vladimir Putin's military incursion into Crimea.

Lawmakers said the plan was to get one version accepted by both sides, pass it and get it to President Barack Obama's desk as early as Thursday night. It was unclear whether the work could be finished that quickly.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday that both sides were discussing ways to get a bill out of Congress post haste. Asked whether he expected problems reconciling the two bills, Boehner said, "You never know. But there's an awful lot of cooperation and discussion under way to try to avoid that."

Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he hoped the Senate would embrace the House bill. "Our goal is not to go to conference because of the urgency of the situation," Royce, R-Calif., said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he hoped the House would adopt the Senate version of the bill, but that even if they were forced to negotiate a final measure, the process would not be lengthy because the two versions were similar.

"I am getting the sense that they (House members) will either conference with us and adopt most of our provisions or they will just take it," McCain said. "I don't think they've made that decision yet."

McCain pushed to strengthen provisions in the Senate bill that call for additional defense equipment and military training to countries in central and eastern Europe, including Ukraine.

"Vladimir Putin is on the move," McCain said in a speech on the floor in which he called Russia a "gas station masquerading as a country."

Democrats backed down Tuesday and stripped International Monetary Fund reform language from the bill, which had stalled its progress. 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 Putin's inner circle and support Ukraine rather than push now for the IMF changes.

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, Democrats decided it was important to move quickly to provide $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and sanction 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 supported IMF reform, but the main thing was to get the aid to Ukraine.

"We have to get IMF reform. But we can't hold up the other," Reid told reporters Tuesday. "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."

Reid said Wednesday that he agreed with Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, that more needs to be done to help Ukraine. "I hope we can move beyond what we are going to do tomorrow for the Ukrainian people," Reid said. He called for bipartisan support for a package of other things Congress could do in the next few weeks to show that American stands with Ukraine.

The move signaled a retreat for the Democrats and the Obama administration, which had promoted the IMF provisions.

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.