Republicans in the U.S. Congress are urging swift sanctions against Russia for its incursion into Ukraine, while Democrats want to give President Barack Obama’s administration room to maneuver.
Citing what they call a pattern of foreign policy failures by Obama, Republicans yesterday said it was imperative for Congress to respond quickly to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to loosen his grip on the Crimea region.
“You see the Congress, quite frankly, being frustrated, and we’re going to act more decisively,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “We normally try to rally around the commander-in-chief at moments like this, but there’s not a whole lot to rally around. This is the sign of a weak president.”
The Obama administration today restricted visas for Ukrainian officials and others, including Russians, who it says threaten Ukraine’s sovereignty. Obama also authorized financial sanctions, clearing the way for escalating pressure.
Democrats are defending Obama’s handling of the matter and warned that legislative action shouldn’t get ahead of a fast- changing foreign policy situation.
The dynamic mirrors the approach that both parties have taken over Iran. In that case, Republicans have pressed to tighten sanctions while Democrats have resisted, saying such a move could jeopardize talks the Obama administration is holding with Iran on its nuclear program.
The Republican-led House of Representatives is scheduled to vote today on a measure, H.R. 4152, to allow about $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine.
Also today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is set to consider a non-binding resolution that would condemn Russian actions, call for sanctions on that country’s officials, banks and other state agencies, and urge members of the G-8 to consider expelling Russia from the group.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second- ranking Democrat, said Congress should start with “a general condemnation” only.
“When it gets into specific responses, let’s make sure that we have the right information,” Durbin said yesterday. “We’d best be informed about what the status of the Crimea situation is.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wasn’t sure whether that chamber would consider a Ukraine aid package before a week-long break that begins March 14.
Durbin and Senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, introduced a resolution that condemns the Russian “military siege” of Crimea and urges the Obama administration and European Union to use economic and diplomatic tools against Russia if it doesn’t pull back.
Russia must “allow a diplomatic solution to advance in Crimea -- one that respects Ukrainian sovereignty but also the unique history and makeup of the region,” Durbin said in a statement. Eleven other senators from both parties co-sponsored the measure.
Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said at a Senate hearing yesterday that the Obama administration is considering a “wide range” of options including sanctions to penalize Russia and restore stability in Ukraine.
“The steps Russia has taken to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, Ukraine’s territorial integrity, are a breach of international law,” Lew told the Senate Finance Committee. “We’re looking into a wide range of options, including sanctions and ways to increase Russia’s political and economic isolation.”
The loan guarantee measure that the full House is slated to consider would be taken up under an expedited procedure that requires a two-thirds majority for passage. It is expected to pass.
The State Department has the money for the loans, though Congress must vote for the funds to be used specifically for Ukraine. The exact amount of the loan guarantees won’t be determined until Ukraine applies for the loan.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce and the panel’s top Democrat, Representative Eliot Engel of New York, co-authored the proposed resolution that “condemns the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty” by Russia and urges the Treasury Department to impose economic sanctions. Such sanctions could affect Russian individuals and banks.
“The goal will be to have the Russians put into the economic calculus the economic consequences which could be very great with respect to their capital markets and the strength of the ruble,” Royce, a California Republican, said yesterday in an interview.
Though Royce is a proponent of sanctions, House leaders are hesitant to attach sanctions and human rights policies to an initial aid package to Ukraine, according to a leadership aide who asked not to be identified to discuss deliberations that aren’t public.
Legislative responses were taking shape on Capitol Hill as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declined to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart in Paris, as urged by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The European Union promised 1.6 billion euros ($2.2 billion) in emergency aid to help the Ukrainian government avert a default.
Lavrov and Kerry met in the French capital in their first face-to-face encounter since the Ukrainian president fled the country during a popular uprising last month.
Russia has accused the West of supporting a coup against the country’s former President Viktor Yanukovych and rejected EU proposals to broker a settlement through talks including Russia and the acting Ukraine government.
The Senate’s top Republican, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, told reporters yesterday that he was “hard pressed to think of foreign policy successes during this administration.”
“We’re in a very difficult position almost everywhere you can identify on the globe, and particularly in places like Syria and Ukraine and Iran,” McConnell said.
McConnell said he supports “developing some kind of package to assist the Ukrainians” as much as possible and said he’s open to imposing sanctions on Russia, including expulsion from the G-8.
“There needs to be some consequence to the Russians of this kind of behavior,” he said.
Arizona Senator John McCain and other Republicans also want Congress to extend a 2012 law, known as the Magnitsky Act, that provides the authority to deny visas and freeze the assets of those involved with human rights violations.
“Magnitsky scares the daylights out of these oligarchs that love to raise their kids in London and spend time in Las Vegas,” McCain said. “That has really has an effect on the Russians.”
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, McCain said U.S. intelligence suffered “another massive failure” by failing to predict the incursion of Russian troops into Crimea. He faulted the administration for what he called “a total misreading of the intentions of Vladimir Putin.”
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