Congress backs bills to aid Ukraine
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a show of solidarity with President Barack Obama, Congress spoke with one voice Thursday against Russia's annexation of Crimea, overwhelmingly backing legislation in the House and Senate to aid cash-strapped Ukraine and punish Russia.
On a voice vote, the Senate approved a measure that would provide $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and give Obama broad authority to impose more sanctions on Russia and President Vladimir Putin's inner circle for Moscow's brazen incursion into Crimea earlier this month.
The House endorsed a different version on a 399-19 vote that also provides assistance to Ukraine and penalizes Russia. Lawmakers hope to send a single bill — the Senate measure — to the White House for Obama's signature by week's end.
"It is vitally important that the United States, in conjunction with our European Union and NATO allies, send an unmistakable signal that this aggression will not be tolerated," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
The votes came as Obama wrapped up a European trip in which he enlisted the support of allies in challenging Russia's aggression. The rare congressional unity stood in sharp contrast to recent partisan divisions over the Ukraine package, which had been caught up in disputes over new IRS regulations on groups claiming tax-exempt status and International Monetary Fund reforms.
In retreat two days ago, Senate Democrats backed down and stripped the IMF reform language from the bill, a defeat for the Obama administration, which had promoted the IMF provisions.
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million people, is battling to install a semblance of normalcy since Ukraine's pro-Russia President, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in February after months of protests ignited by his decision to back away from closer relations with the EU and turn toward Russia.
During the past few weeks, an interim government has formed, Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia and further possible military incursions by Russia are feared. The country is also bracing for a turbulent political season ahead of the upcoming presidential vote.
Ukraine is politically divided, with western regions favoring closer ties to Europe and the east looking toward Russia. But the dire state of its economy is an unavoidable issue: Ukraine's Finance Ministry has said it needs $35 billion over the next two years to avoid default.
Asked if the $1 billion in loan guarantees that Congress is pledging was enough, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, noted that the U.S. was the largest contributor to the International Monetary Fund, which on Thursday pledged up to $18 billion in loans to prop up Ukraine's teetering economy. The money is hinged on structural reforms that Ukraine has pledged to undertake.
Other donors, including the European Union and Japan, have already pledged further aid to Ukraine, conditional on the conclusion of an IMF bailout and reform package. The total amount of international assistance will be about $27 billion over the next two years.
Taken together, all the assistance is in the "ballpark of what we need," Menendez said.
The Senate bill would provide $1 billion in loan guarantees to help stabilize Ukraine's economy.
It authorizes $50 million in assistance to Ukraine for such things as improving democratic governance and anti-corruption efforts; supporting free and fair elections in Ukraine; and bolstering democratic institutions and civil society organizations.
The bill also authorizes an additional $100 million to enhance security cooperation among the United States, European Union and countries in central and eastern Europe and further authorizes the president to provide defense articles and services, and additional security assistance to Ukraine and countries in the region
Targeting Russia, the bill would freeze assets and revoke visas of Russian officials and their associates who are complicit in or responsible for significant corruption in Ukraine.
"Putin's cronies should recognize that Putin may not be the right horse to be betting on any longer," Menendez said.
The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he hoped that once the bill is signed into law, the administration will opt to sanction three or four additional Russian banks.
"What I hope the administration will do is to turn the volume up and actually send some strong sanctions into the energy sector, into the banking sector," he said.
To expedite the Ukraine package, lawmakers decided to vote separately on one provision of the House-passed bill on broadcast rights.
The legislation would provide money to step up broadcasts by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America to counter Russia-supported messages airing in Ukraine.
"Moscow is using propaganda to sow confusion and fear in the Ukraine right now," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.