WASHINGTON: The Senate and House appear headed for a standoff over competing bills to authorize sanctions on Russia and provide aid to Ukraine, potentially prolonging Congress' inaction over the two weeks since Russian President Vladimir Putin's military intervention in the Crimean peninsula.
The Democratic-controlled Senate advanced its legislation in a 78-17 procedural vote Monday, sparing President Barack Obama an embarrassing setback while he uses his weeklong overseas trip to lobby allies to punish Moscow. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed in no mood to compromise with Republicans who oppose changes in the bill relating to the International Monetary Fund.
Reid focused his ire on Republican senators who delayed his bill before lawmakers went on a break March 14. He urged them to consider "how their obstruction affects United States' national security as well as the people of Ukraine" and said their delay of any congressional action "sent a dangerous message to Russian leaders."
"Since a few Republicans blocked these important sanctions last work period, Russian lawmakers voted to annex Crimea and Russian forces have taken over Ukrainian military bases," Reid said. "It's impossible to know whether events would have unfolded differently if the United States had responded to Russian aggression with a strong, unified voice."
Full passage of the Senate bill is likely later this week. But members of the Republican-led House of Representatives are preparing to write their own Russia sanctions bill at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, supplementing the aid legislation they passed earlier this month. Neither includes any reference to IMF reforms, which House Speaker John Boehner has called unnecessary.
At issue are changes that would increase the power of emerging countries in the IMF and shift some $63 billion from a crisis fund to a general account the lending body can use for economic stabilization operations around the world.
Republicans have long spurned the administration's attempt to ratify the IMF revisions, saying they would increase the exposure of U.S. taxpayers in foreign bailouts. Making the shift now, opponents argue, also would marginally increase Russia's voting power over the fund's finances.
The Obama administration and Democrats counter that unless the U.S. approves the new rules, Washington will lose its influence at the IMF and hamper the body's ability to avert economic meltdowns in places precisely like Ukraine. The U.S. is the only major country that has yet to sign off.
Reid's charge came despite widespread bipartisan support for providing Ukraine with aid and hitting Putin's government with sanctions. Republican congressional aides noted the House has passed different legislation, meaning the Senate bill could not have become law before recess anyhow. They blamed Reid and Democrats for blocking the Senate from taking up the House legislation.
Reid "sounds completely unhinged," fired back Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, said. "The House has acted, and is continuing to act, in a reasonable and responsible way to give the White House the tools it needs to hold President Putin accountable."
The Senate bill includes a proposal from one of Obama's fiercest critics, Republican Sen. John McCain, enabling the president to impose economic penalties on Russian government officials for corruption even within Russia's own borders. The broadness of the authorization is unprecedented for Russia, even if applying the sanctions would be at Obama's discretion.
With American officials warning Russia could opt to expand farther into Ukraine, McCain urged his colleagues to look beyond the IMF provisions. He stressed the need for Congress to pass the Senate bill quickly.
"If we do not send this message now," McCain said, "Putin will be encouraged to enact further acts of aggression against Crimea and in the region."