A struggle to resolve Ukraine impasse

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Congress this week will try to get its act together on bolstering Ukraine and condemning Russia, as the House and Senate struggle to reconcile divergent approaches to the crisis.

The Democratic-led Senate plans to begin voting Monday evening on legislation that packages aid to Ukraine with the approval of reforms by the International Monetary Fund sought by the Obama administration. But the House could vote by the end of the week on its own legislation that does not include the IMF provision, which House Republican leaders do not want tied to the Ukraine crisis.

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The ongoing dispute over the IMF issue has prevented any assistance for Ukraine from making it to the president’s desk, undermining the stated desire of leaders in both parties for the U.S. to demonstrate a unified front in the face of President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Eastern Europe, where Russia formally annexed Crimea last week.

Unlike many battles in Congress, the differences holding up the aid are as much between the two chambers as they are between the two parties. In the Senate, Republicans like Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) have said they would go along with the IMF provisions, despite reservations. In the House, however, senior Democrats on the Foreign Affairs and Appropriations committees are backing GOP legislation, which does not include the IMF language.

The House earlier in March approved $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine, but Democrats in the Senate are pushing their own bill that includes not only the loan guarantees but the approval of IMF reforms and additional assistance for Ukraine. A Senate Democratic aide said a procedural vote on the latter measure could come Monday, setting up final passage on Wednesday.

Yet while its earlier loan guarantee bill remains stuck in the Senate, the House plans to move on separate legislation next week to broaden sanctions on Russian officials and businessmen, expand international Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts in Ukraine and Crimea, and provide $8 million to boost law enforcement efforts.

That measure has the support of the top Republican and Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, which will consider the bill on Tuesday. A full House vote is possible later in the week, a leadership aide said.

The new bill also forgoes the IMF language, and a Senate GOP aide who supports the House leadership’s position argued that should send a message to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.): Bow to reality and move a bill without that funding.

"Sen. Reid now has a clear path forward to success. The only question is whether he’ll take it, or insist on holding the bill hostage to an unrelated issue," the aide said. 

The Senate GOP, however, is divided on the issue. 

McCain, Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) all voted for the combined IMF-Ukraine bill when it passed out of the Foreign Relations Committee. Graham has said he would provide the crucial fifth vote needed to overcome a filibuster, and Rubio wrote in the Washington Post this week that “the need to send a strong bipartisan message of solidarity to the people of Ukraine and a statement of resolve to Moscow far outweighs any misgivings I and others might have” about the IMF language.

Republicans say the IMF bill can move separately, and privately they continue to link it to a one-year delay in IRS regulations on tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations. The GOP argues that the regulations, unrelated to foreign policy, would enhance a campaign of harassment against conservative groups, and party leaders pushed for the trade when the administration first asked for the IMF provisions to be included in an omnibus spending bill in January.

The Obama administration was not backing down Friday, after the House bill emerged. 

“We continue to support the comprehensive package that will help Ukraine restore financial stability. Congressional approval of the IMF reforms would allow the IMF to provide Ukraine an additional $6 billion in assistance under its standard loan practices – without any new financial commitment from the United States," an administration official said. 

Congressional Republicans have opposed the language and argued it would lessen U.S. influence in the institution. 

“I think it was probably unhelpful to link IMF to Ukraine,” said Kori Schake former Bush-era State Department official, now at the right-leaning Hoover Institution. “They ought to delink.”

Schake said that “Ukraine desperately needs” to be stabilized financially and to get assistance in good governance. 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the IMF issue is unrelated to Ukraine and called on the Senate to pass the original loan guarantee bill sent by the House. A spokesman said Friday there had been no back-channel talks with the administration to resolve the dispute.

In a memo to House Republicans on Friday, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Congress needed to step up action against Putin.

“If Mr. Putin’s ambitions are to be checked, we must take more steps to put pressure on Russia,” Cantor wrote. “Thus I expect the House to move to impose greater costs on Mr. Putin and the oligarchs from Russia. In addition, as a world leader and a country that keeps its word to its friends, America has a responsibility to support countries like Ukraine who are threatened by their neighbors.”

Lawmakers said the new House bill “supplements” President Obama’s unilateral actions to impose sanctions on Russian officials and businessmen.