WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives cleared a financial aid package for Ukraine on Thursday, heeding the White House's request that Congress respond quickly to Russia's military incursion into Crimea.
The measure passed handily by a vote of 385 to 23, with all the no votes coming from Republicans. It authorizes the State Department to grant up to $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine. Because the bill uses money from funds already appropriated, the total additional cost to the United States would be about $200 million.
House Republican leaders spoke in recent days of the need for Congress to move expeditiously, which is why they left out President Barack Obama's request for separate language to increase resources for the International Monetary Fund.
"Today, once again, I’m calling on Congress to follow up on these words with action, specifically to support the IMF’s capacity to lend resources to Ukraine and to provide American assistance for the Ukrainian government," Obama had said in a statement at the White House before the vote.
A House GOP leadership aide explained that the fastest way to render financial assistance to the government in Kiev would be by expanding existing loan guarantees, appropriated for Jordan and Tunisia, to Ukraine.
"When you have Russian tanks crossing the border, speed is of the essence," the aide told The Huffington Post. "Taking [the IMF issue], that's been under debate for four years, and trying to throw that on is a little opportunistic and will slow down getting assistance to Ukraine."
Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, which was released on Tuesday, includes a measure to boost the U.S. share of funds going to the IMF by shifting roughly $63 billion from an existing credit line to the international agency. The White House failed to get the IMF increase included in a January spending bill and is now pointing to the crisis in Ukraine to underscore its importance.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is developing its own aid package. A spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the committee, said it was unclear if Obama's IMF request was in the proposal, noting that "everything is subject to change" given the fluid situation in Ukraine.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said the upper chamber would not take up the House bill this week. The timing of an aid package vote in the Senate depends on negotiations over the text of the legislation, the aide added.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), another member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Wednesday that the main sticking point was whether to include voluntary or mandatory sanctions against Russia along with the loan guarantees. The House did not include sanctions in its aid package and is expected to consider them separately next week.
Also on Thursday, Obama announced a host of targeted sanctions against individuals and entities deemed to be violating Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. The executive order includes the freezing of U.S. assets and visa restrictions on certain individuals. An administration official told CNN that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not on the visa ban list.
"It is an unusual and extraordinary circumstance to sanction a head of state, and we would not begin our designations by doing so," the official said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Thursday that he supported the limited sanctions outlined by Obama, calling it a "welcome first step."
"You've heard me call President Putin a thug. That's because he is," Boehner said. "And he's counting on the U.S. to sit back and watch him take whatever he wants."
"We remain committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to put President Putin in check and prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its neighbors," the speaker added.
Boehner also reiterated his call for the administration to expedite the approval of U.S. natural gas exports, pointing out that Russia has an "energy stranglehold" on much of Europe as the world's second largest producer of natural gas. More than half of Russia's natural gas exports to Europe flow through Ukraine.