Congress to Ukraine: US can’t get it done

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Congress will fail to approve an aid package to Ukraine before a Sunday referendum in Crimea, where voters will decide whether to break away from Kiev’s government to join Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

While a Senate panel on Wednesday approved legislation in a bipartisan vote, aides said differences between the House and Senate will prevent Congress from completing its work before lawmakers leave Washington on Friday for a weeklong recess.

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“Only the U.S. Senate could bungle this like it has,” Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) remarked after the vote.

President Obama at the beginning of last week said Congress should move $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine as its first course of business, and he reiterated the call on Wednesday while hosting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at the White House.

“I would just ask both Democrats and Republicans, who I know are unified in their support of Ukraine, to move quickly to give us the support that we need so that we can give the Ukrainian people the support that they need,” Obama said. 

Yet the administration also backed the inclusion of reforms to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the Ukraine bill that slowed Congress’s work. The reforms are not included in the House bill, and are opposed by conservative lawmakers in both chambers.

An administration official on Thursday downplayed the congressional delay.

"Given our ongoing background work and preparation, a one to two week delay in the approval of the loan guarantee by Congress would not have a meaningful impact on timing on which the Ukraine guarantees would be done," the official said. 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday urged the Senate to simply pass a bill granting $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine, which the House passed last week. 

Heather Conley, an expert from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said failing to pass the bill this week would be harmful.

“It sends a clear and damaging message to our allies and enemies alike that U.S. political polarization trumps American leadership and credibility abroad,” she said. “It is unfortunate particularly when acting Prime Minister Yatsenyuk met with Members of Congress today.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved legislation including the IMF language in a 14-3 vote, with four Republicans joining the panel’s Democrats in voting “aye.”

But Risch and two other Republicans rejected the bill in large part over that issue, and it was expected to ruin any chance of quickly moving the legislation through the Senate floor.

“Everybody wants to see this done ... why would you strap in a poison pill?” Risch said Wednesday. “I think it is a forgone conclusion this is not going to get through the House.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) downplayed the opposition.

He argued the bipartisan committee vote sent a strong signal and strengthens Secretary of State John Kerry’s hand as he tries to negotiate an end to the Ukraine crisis on Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“It’s probably the first order of business when we return,” he said. “Many of my Republican colleagues have talked to me about their willingness to vote for it on the floor.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who backed the bill, also argued the committee vote would strengthen Kerry.

“I am confident we will have more than enough votes to pass it when we get back,” McCain said. 

Besides McCain, Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) supported the bill.

Risch and Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposed the bill. Barrasso and Paul disliked both the IMF provisions and granting loan guarantees to Ukraine, which Paul argued would end up being paid to Russia because of Kiev’s gas debt to Moscow.

The IMF reforms would give more voting rights at the body to several advanced developing countries — including Russia, a point made by the provision’s opponents.

“This legislation is supposed to be about assisting Ukraine and punishing Russia, and the IMF measure completely undercuts both of these goals by giving Putin’s Russia something it wants,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who missed the vote because he was in Florida for jury duty.

Corker argued that the share increase for Russia is small, going from a 2.5 percent to 2.7 percent stake, and that the reforms would strengthen U.S. leadership.

Another possible problem in the House is opposition to cuts to Army and Air Force procurement programs that are used to pay for a portion of the bill’s $315 million cost.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) objected to those cuts, and described the bill as “loony.”

The bill includes $157 million in cuts to defense procurement. 

The impasse in Congress is taking place just before Kerry plans to travel to London on Friday to try to convince Lavrov to “diffuse” the Crimea crisis.

In testimony to a congressional panel on Wednesday, he warned the administration was ready to act on sanctions if Russia does not bend.

“We will do what we have to do if Russia cannot find the way to make the right choices here,” Kerry said. “It can get ugly fast if the wrong choices are made.”

The bill approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would authorize Obama to freeze assets and deny visas to individuals in Russia and Ukraine involved in backing Russia’s intervention, corruption or anti-Democratic efforts in Ukraine.

Jeremy Herb and Justin Sink contributed.