Senators already in their corners in upcoming debate over Ukraine aid

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 21, 2014 


Russian soldiers guard the entrance to the Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Friday, March 21, 2014.


— Russia’s annexation of Crimea has produced yet another perfect storm in Washington: a fast-moving international crisis and a slow-moving U.S. Congress.

The Senate next week will try once again to take up a $1 billion aid and sanctions bill to help struggling Ukraine after attempts to bring up the measure eroded into a barrage of ill-will and finger-pointing on the chamber floor just before Congress adjourned for a one-week recess.

Before the adjournment, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops were working to secure Crimea. When the Senate holds a procedural vote Monday on Ukraine, lawmakers will be dealing with a Crimea that Putin has firmly declared is now part of Russia.

“The more dilly-dallying here, the more difficult we make the problem for the Ukraine and ourselves,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., head of Indiana University’s Center on Congress and a former chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. “For the Congress to take a break at a time you have an international crisis doesn’t help. Time is of the essence.”

President Barack Obama concurred, urging Congress to swiftly pass a Ukraine aid package.

“Expressions of support are not enough,” he said Thursday on the White House South Lawn. “We need action.”

But Russia’s hold on Crimea might not be enough to persuade senators to pick up their pace, as there’s sharp disagreement among Republicans over a provision in the bill that revamps the International Monetary Fund.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he’s confident there’s enough Republican support to prevent the bill from being bottled up. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday that the administration believes the Ukraine aid bill “can and should move forward quickly through Congress as soon as Congress is back.”

However, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Pat Roberts of Kansas sent a letter to Reid late Friday saying that they will object to the aid bill unless there’s separate vote on whether to strip the IMF provision from it.

“Most importantly, change at the IMF has no direct relevance to the issue at hand, which is assisting the nation of Ukraine as it tries to rebuild its fragile economy in a way that will enable it to become a partner to the free economies of the U.S. and Europe,” the senators wrote. “While we are all eager to assist Ukraine on its path to freedom and prosperity, injecting IMF governance issues into this debate – and undermining U.S. influence on the IMF – is not the way to accomplish this end.”

The provision would allow the IMF to move $63 billion from its crisis fund to its general accounts. The move, which increase the IMF’s quota _ or equity capital _ would make good on a 2010 international agreement that also would rebalance the fund’s board of directors to give economically emerging nations like China, India and Brazil a greater voice.

Conservative Republicans say the change is unnecessary and would diminish U.S. clout over the fund. Some Republicans also believe that the IMF has served as an enabler, bailing out countries that have suffered economic hard times because of poor financial decisions made by their governments.

The House of Representatives passed a Ukraine aid bill on March 6 that contains $1 billion in loan guarantees but excludes IMF restructuring. Several conservative senators blocked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., from moving quickly on the legislation. They voiced opposition to the Senate bill and support for the House measure.

“I would suggest that the so-called IMF reforms are misguided policy,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said before the break during a sometimes heated exchange on the Senate floor. “There is no need whatsoever for these reforms. I agree with Speaker of the House John Boehner, who says these so-called IMF reforms are unnecessary.”

Groups such as the tea party-tinged FreedomWorks and Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, are poised to oppose a “yes” vote on Monday’s Senate vote to proceed with considering the Ukraine aid package containing the IMF measures.

If there’s a delay in getting money to Ukraine, Obama and Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for insisting that the IMF overhaul be included in the bill, according to Dan Holler, a Heritage Action spokesman.

“This could have been out the door before (Congress’) recess,” Holler said. “Ukraine aid was something that had a lot of support. Then it got bogged down by IMF, which could not have passed alone. Now it has the potential to delay things for a long time.”

However, some key Senate Republicans feel the situation in Ukraine is too urgent for the aid bill to get delayed over the IMF overhaul. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, called the IMF provision “ill-advised” in a Washington Post op-ed piece Thursday but added that Russia’s “unrelenting aggression” dictates approving the bill.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, criticized fellow Republican senators for delaying action on Ukraine aid because of their opposition to the IMF overhaul. He continued his tongue-lashing in a conference call with reporters on Friday.

“I said, ‘You call yourselves Republicans if you want to because that’s your voter registration, but don’t call yourselves Reagan Republicans.’” McCain said. “To allow an IMF reform measure to block us from doing the things that would help the people of Ukraine in their hour of need is unbelievable. And by the way, it is kind of a remarkable commentary about where at least part of the Republican Party (is) going.”

A prolonged Ukraine debate could hurt Obama as he attempts to rally international political and economic support for Ukraine during meetings next week with European officials in Brussels and the Hague.

Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department policy planning official under Obama, said that the White House and Congress must come through with an aid package for Ukraine and that the IMF issue is “something the president is going to have to deliver on.”

Shapiro said that European leaders are following the issue closely.

“He doesn’t have to deliver on it next week, but I think he’s going to have to make that promise to them and he’s going to have to deliver on it in the reasonably near future,” he said.

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