WASHINGTON -- A bill that would provide Ukraine with up to $1 billion in loan guarantees and levy sanctions against Russian officials cleared a Senate committee Wednesday amid the political crisis in Crimea.
But the 14-3 vote by the Senate Foreign Foreign Relations Committee masked potential trouble delivering quick economic assistance to Ukraine. The bill's chief negotiators tacked on a White House request for a measure that would reform the International Monetary Fund, which many Republicans oppose.
The bill was crafted by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the committee chairman, and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member, and includes a boost to IMF accounts that President Barack Obama and Democrats say would maintain U.S. influence with the lender. Republicans have opposed such reform in the past, arguing it would decrease U.S. influence with the IMF. The GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed a Ukraine aid package last week without the IMF language.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of IMF reform in the Senate bill at roughly $315 million. Part of the cost would be offset by taking money from U.S. military accounts -- an issue that raised additional concern for some Republican lawmakers. Menendez argued during the committee markup that the military would not be adversely affected, because the funds had already been removed from the Defense Department budget to meet sequestration spending caps.
Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Jim Risch (Idaho), and John Barrasso (Wyo.) voted against the bill, with Risch criticizing the IMF provision. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who strongly supported aid to Ukraine, missed the vote, but had said he would oppose the bill if it included IMF reforms.
"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," Rubio said in a statement Wednesday. "I won’t support flawed legislation that is divisive and actually undermines our efforts to provide quick support to the Ukrainian people in their hour of need."
It's unclear when the legislation will come up for a vote in the Senate. Republicans will likely request a 60-vote threshold for cloture. Most GOP lawmakers on the committee nevertheless voted to advance the bill, signaling that the real fight could come in the House, where Republicans suggested they would reject the Senate bill unless the IMF piece was stripped out.
"The best way to ensure that Congress acts on this important issue this week is for the Senate to pass the House-passed bill," a House GOP leadership aide said.
Another GOP leadership aide told The Huffington Post last week that the move was "opportunistic" by Obama and Democrats who had tried as recently as January to pass IMF reform and failed.
In his budget for fiscal 2015, Obama included an increase of about $63 billion from an existing credit line to the IMF. The White House has since pointed to the crisis in Ukraine to underscore the IMF's importance.
Menendez urged Republicans to support the language, pointing out in the hearing that the IMF would play "the central, anchoring role" in providing economic assistance to stabilize the situation in Ukraine. "The Republicans will have to decide which message it sends to the world," Menendez added later.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a strong backer of assisting Ukraine, urged senators to look past the IMF issue at a time of crisis.
"I am not going to let IMF stand in the way of a reaction of Congress on an invasion of a country," McCain told reporters Tuesday. "And if others do, then they have their priorities terribly skewed."
McCain added: "I want us to move forward with or without the IMF language. The IMF language pales in comparison to the requirement for us to act in light of an invasion of a sovereign nation, which is what Vladimir Putin has just done."
Other elements of the Senate bill include sanctions against Russian officials deemed responsible for the military aggression in Ukraine and undermining its sovereignty. The House bill left out sanctions, focusing instead on foreign aid.
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03/25/2014 6:18 PM EDT
Senate To Vote Thursday On Ukraine Aid
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set up a final vote Thursday on a bill that would provide Ukraine with up to $1 billion in loan guarantees and impose targeted sanctions against Russian officials.
Reid made the announcement Tuesday after dropping a controversial provision from the Senate bill that would have boosted the U.S. quota at the International Monetary Fund. Republicans in both chambers of Congress opposed the IMF reforms, which were specifically requested by the White House to increase Ukraine's borrowing capabilities at the institution.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier Tuesday that Republicans would still want to vote on a number of amendments, but the IMF language was the major sticking point. Without it, the Ukraine aid package is expected to pass both the Senate and the House without much drama or delay.
03/25/2014 5:24 PM EDT
Moldovan Separatists Claim They Downed Ukrainian Drone
Authorities in a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova claim to have brought down a Ukrainian drone on a reconnaissance mission.
NovostiPMR, the news agency of Trans-Dniester says Tuesday that the region's intelligence agency downed the drone on March 23.
The region broke away from Moldova in 1990. There are 1,500 Russian troops stationed there guarding hundreds of tons of weapons.
According to the agency, the drone was "launched from Ukrainian territory by people close to the Ukrainian Security Service and the Defense Ministry."
It said the plane illegally crossed into Trans-Dniester violating its air space. It added that the authorities in the region reserved the right to use "all available methods" to defend the territory which is not internationally recognized but is supported by Russia.
03/25/2014 4:18 PM EDT
Russians Take Over Last Ukrainian Ship In Crimea
Russian forces appeared to be attempting to take over the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea on Tuesday after a Ukrainian military spokesman reported explosions in its vicinity and helicopters approaching the vessel.
Russian forces armed with stun grenades and automatic weapons have seized ships and military bases from the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Crimea in recent days as part of Russia's largely bloodless annexation of the region.
Kiev, which calls Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal, ordered its remaining forces to withdraw for their own safety on Monday, but not all troops have yet left the Black Sea peninsula and some ships have been prevented from leaving.
"Around 1900 (1600 GMT) there were several explosions from the direction of the minesweeper Cherkasy in the Donuzlav bay," Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told Reuters.
"Some Mi-35 helicopter gunships were observed hovering in the area. Speedboats and a tug were seen approaching Cherkasy," he said.
On Monday Cherkasy attempted without success to break to the open sea through a blockade at the entrance to the inlet. The Russian navy blocked the route earlier this month by scuttling three hulks in the channel.
Seleznyov said he was unable to confirm whether Russian troops had boarded the ship.
03/25/2014 3:02 PM EDT
Russian Military Holds Exercises In Moldova
Russia's military staged training exercises on Tuesday in Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova that is a focus of tension following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
NATO's top military commander said on Sunday he was worried that Russia might have its eye on Transdniestria, a largely Russian-speaking region that borders western Ukraine, after seizing Crimea, which has a narrow ethnic Russian majority.
The Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for Russia's Western Military District, Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, as saying that Russian forces stationed in Transdniestria had "conducted an anti-terrorism drill and practiced operations to rebuff an attack on their military base".
Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.
03/25/2014 1:02 PM EDT
No, Ukraine Will Not Have Nukes: Ministry Of Foreign Affairs
Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, in something of a Shermanesque statement, that the country will not develop nuclear weapons, one day after the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs seized on a proposal by some Ukrainian MPs to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
"Ukraine has not planned, is not planning and is not going to plan to resume its nuclear status," a spokesman for the agency said at a press briefing.
Earlier this month, several opposition MPs introduced a draft bill to withdraw Ukraine from the NPT. Russia's Foreign Ministry seized on it, saying "the dysfunctional new Kiev authorities may pose a threat to the security of Ukrainian nuclear sites under the current Ukrainian circumstances," in a statement.
"We do not trust attempts of the Ukrainian delegate to dissociate from this position. The NPT is in serious danger."
Ukraine, which suddenly became the world's third-largest nuclear state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave its nuclear arsenal back to Russia for disposal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for security assurances from Russia that it would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.
03/25/2014 12:34 PM EDT
Five Scenarios For Russia's Relations With China, Moldova And Nato
The world's industrialized nations have turned their back on Russia, following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.
Though the G8 cannot expel its members, countries can refuse a member permission to attend, effectively expelling them.
With jitters in the east of Europe about further Russian incursion, and wariness in China, the state of world diplomacy could look very different by 2015.
HuffPost UK has asked military and international relations experts on five scenarios that could occur now Russia looks increasingly isolated, and as the West looks impotent.
Read here what they predict.
03/25/2014 12:27 PM EDT
Senate Democrats Consider Dropping IMF Provision
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may drop a controversial reform to the U.S. share at the International Monetary Fund from the Ukraine aid package, according to Senate leadership aides.
The provision was requested by President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leaders, but faces widespread opposition from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that his members would not support the aid bill unless the IMF language was dropped.
A Senate leadership aide said removing the provision is now "under consideration in order to move the bill." In exchange, Republicans would drop their demand to delay a Treasury Department rule that cracks down on the political activities of nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4)s.
The House of Representatives passed its own legislation providing aid to Ukraine earlier this month without the IMF reforms, and planned to move on a sanctions bill that also left the issue untouched. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said boosting U.S. funds at the IMF has "nothing to do with Ukraine," and his aides indicated they would not have enough votes to move the Senate bill through the lower chamber in its current form.
The Obama administration and Senate Democrats have been making the case that ratifying the IMF reforms, which were agreed upon in 2010, is critical to Ukraine's borrowing capabilities in a time of crisis. Still, some House Democrats acknowledged that the White House was complicating the process by renewing debate over a contentious issue when providing aid expeditiously is of the utmost importance.
03/25/2014 11:46 AM EDT
Obama Dismisses Romney's 'Geopolitical Foe' Comment
President Barack Obama dismissed the notion that former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was correct in saying that Russia was "our number one geopolitical foe" Tuesday, in a response to a question from Jonathan Karl of ABC News. He said that Russia was merely a "regional power" that was acting out of "weakness."
"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and we have considerable influence on our neighbors," he said. "We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."
03/25/2014 11:26 AM EDT
Obama Says He's Not Interested In Putin's Motivation
At a press conference in Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama sidestepped a question on whether he "misread" Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he wasn't so interested in his motivations.
"With respect to President Putin's motivation, I think there has been a lot of speculation. I am less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States but the entire international community are looking to uphold."
He added that the United States is "concerned" about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine.
03/25/2014 10:39 AM EDT
Will Russia Annex Moldova Next?