Senate advances Ukraine aid package

The Senate voted 78-17 Monday to advance a bill that would impose U.S. sanctions against Russia and provide aid to Ukraine.

More than 20 Republicans joined Democrats to end debate on the motion to proceed. 

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Many Republicans oppose provisions in the bill that would reform the International Monetary Fund's rules, and that language is not included in legislation approve by the House.

Several GOP senators said differences over the IMF funding shouldn't stand in the way of Congress approving a bill.

“The most important issue is to pass this legislation as soon as possible — fight about other less important issues later on,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said ahead of the vote.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he had "no idea" how differences with the House over the IMF language, which is backed by President Obama, would get resolved. 
 
"Our staffs have been talking and I don't know that there is a pathway yet, especially with the IMF piece," he said.
 
The Senate bill would provide $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees to Ukraine and spend more than $100 million to promote democracy and security in that country.

It would impose sanctions against anyone deemed by the president to have undermined Ukraine's security or independence, or to have engaged in corruption in Ukraine or Russia. 

The sanctions codify steps already being taken by the Obama administration and expand the criteria for possible targets, while giving the administration the ability to waive sanctions. 

Obama has called for aid to Ukraine since Russian forces centered the Crimean peninsula weeks ago. Russia annexed Crimea last week, making it a part of Russia. 

The administration in a statement said it was pleased with the Senate's step, and that it was important that the U.S. take a leading role in helping Ukraine. It said the administration would work with Congress to complete work on the bill as soon as possible.

The controversial IMF provisions shift $63 billion within the body from a tightly controlled crisis fund to the general loan pool. It also approves a 2010 reform of the IMF designed to give developing nations a greater say in the running of the Fund, but which some conservatives say weakens U.S. power and prerogatives.

The IMF reforms are scored as costing $315 million, offset by cuts to State Department programs and Defense procurement accounts. While small relative to the $600 billion annual Pentagon budget, the cut has drawn ire from some defense hawks.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) voted to advance the bill but said he expected the IMF language will fall out in a conference with the House bill.

"I'm for the IMF reform but ... we need to get something done," Graham said.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said he supports the IMF language but that not getting bogged down is the most important thing. He is cosponsoring the House sanctions bill without the IMF language.

"The White House has indicated to me that they want it in, that they think it's important. The majority leader told me no, they won't allow it. So those are two polar opposite, hard and fast positions," he said. "I really hope this doesn't become one of those thing where Congress can't get its act together."

Ahead of the vote, the conservative group Heritage Action urged senators to vote against the package because of the IMF language, although the Club for Growth stayed out of the fight, noting it does not take foreign policy positions.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) voted to proceed to the bill but told The Hill he plans to offer a floor amendment stripping the IMF language. 

"I hope the Democrats agree with us because we want to send a very unified strong signal," Johnson said. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to get an up-or-down vote on the Senate Ukraine bill more than a week ago, but some Republicans objected, saying they wanted to add a delay to Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations on tax-exempt groups if Democrats were allowed to include reforms to the IMF.

“It’s almost unimaginable why they blocked it,” Reid said ahead of the vote. “A few radical Republicans delayed this aid package by 10 days in order to protect the Koch brothers and billionaires like them.”

Reid has repeatedly criticized Charles and David Koch, two billionaire brothers who have backed conservative positions and Republican candidates. 

The GOP tried to link the IRS and IMF issues during negotiations over the 2014 omnibus spending bill in January. Republicans argue that the IRS regulation is part of a pattern of harassment against conservative groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch brothers.

Obama and other Group of Seven leaders meeting in Brussels on Monday noted that the IMF would be taking a central role in Ukraine.

“IMF support will be critical in unlocking additional assistance from the World Bank, other international financial institutions, the EU, and bilateral sources. We remain united in our commitment to provide strong financial backing to Ukraine, to co-ordinate our technical assistance, and to provide assistance in other areas, including measures to enhance trade and strengthen energy security," the G-7 leaders said. 

Administration officials argued that once the reform of the IMF is complete, it would have more funds to provide to Ukraine. As a result, they said the IMF language belongs in the aid bill. 

This story was updated at 7:03 p.m.