WASHINGTON (AP) — A Senate panel on Wednesday advanced what could become some of the most significant U.S. sanctions on Russia since the end of the Cold War in a bid to pressure President Vladimir Putin to pull Russian troops out of Crimea.
By a 14-3 vote, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bill authorizing $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine's new government and allowing the Obama administration to impose economic penalties on Russian officials responsible for the military intervention or culpable of gross corruption.
The bill stopped short of going after Russian banks or energy companies as some legislators proposed, giving Secretary of State John Kerry more leeway ahead of diplomatic talks with his Russian counterpart in Europe later this week.
All Democrats supported the measure. Republican objections concerned how the U.S. will pay for the loan guarantees and U.S. approval for expanding the lending capacity of the International Monetary Fund. House Republicans, who are pushing their own Ukraine aid legislation, also voiced their opposition to the IMF provisions.
"Putin has miscalculated by playing a game of Russian roulette with the international community, but we refuse to blink and will never accept this violation of international law," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Foreign Relations panel, who introduced the legislation.
The vote coincided with a strong show of support by President Barack Obama for Ukraine's new and embattled pro-Western government. Sitting side-by-side in the Oval Office with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Obama expressed hope a Russian-backed referendum on Crimea's future planned for this weekend could still be halted. If the vote occurs, he vowed not to recognize the result.
The Senate bill condemns Russia's "unjustified military intervention" in Crimea and instructs the president to target with visa bans and asset freezes "any person ... for ordering, controlling or otherwise directing" acts that undermine Ukraine's sovereignty. At the behest of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the panel voted to expand Obama's sanctions authorization to target Russian government officials complicit gross corruption in Ukraine, in Russia or anywhere else.
The broadness of the authorization could be unprecedented for Russia, even if applying the sanctions would be at Obama's discretion.
Despite broad support for punishing Russia among the Obama administration and Democratic and Republican lawmakers, securing passage of a comprehensive bill that combines sanctions with aid to Ukraine hasn't been easy. The most contentious element centers on the IMF, which the United States, European countries and others are working with to provide billions of dollars in loans to Ukraine's cash-depleted authorities.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday reshaping the IMF isn't "necessary for dealing with this Ukraine crisis." He called for the Senate to take up the House's version of the Ukraine assistance bill, which has no elements concerning the IMF or Russia sanctions. "They could move it today."
The U.S. is the only major country that hasn't signed off on a 2010 package of IMF reforms that increases the power of emerging countries in the lending body and shifts money within its accounts so it can deliver more cash to countries in economic peril. But some Republicans object to the changes for fear of increasing the exposure U.S. taxpayers in foreign bailouts managed by the fund.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who wasn't present at the committee hearing because he attended jury duty in Miami, put out a statement outlining his opposition to the IMF provisions, saying the changes would hurt Ukraine and help Putin's Russia — which would gain a marginally greater voting share in the lending body.
That argument was echoed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who also cited the billions of dollars Kiev owes Moscow. "When you give money to Ukraine, you are giving it to Russia," he said. Paul challenged the wisdom of providing any loans to Ukraine, given its poor credit rating, and suggested the loans were more akin to a "gift." Paul's colleagues, however, roundly rejected his amendments.
Voting against the bill were Paul and fellow Republican Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and John Barrasso of Wyoming. Rubio didn't exercise his right to a proxy vote.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the top Republicans in Congress' armed services committees, both vowed to oppose the bill if it comes to the Senate or House floors because it takes almost $150 million from unused funds for missile and aircraft procurement. They want the money reprogrammed to address military shortcomings at a time of significant defense cuts.
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