Even with lawmakers all over the board on Ukraine, congressional leaders are taking steps to bolster President Obama as he navigates the precarious and fast-changing situation in Eastern Europe.
House and Senate committee chairs are preparing measures to authorize aid to Ukraine, while leaders in both chambers—and from both sides of the aisle—have signaled they’re backing the White House’s request for the package.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez said his panel is putting together a bipartisan legislative package authorizing up to $1 billion in loan guarantees to support Ukraine’s economy. Majority Leader Harry Reid, in a brief statement Monday, called the president’s request for economic aid “appropriate” and said he would be “happy to help in any way.”
In the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor said committee chairmen are drafting plans aimed at pressuring Russia to leave Ukraine.
The response comes as Russian troops have moved into the eastern Ukrainian region of Crimea—site of a Russian naval base and a large ethnic Russian population—and as Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Kiev to offer—in the president’s words—“concrete packages of economic aid.”
“What we are also indicating to the Russians is that if, in fact, they continue on the current trajectory that they’re on, that we are examining a whole series of steps—economic, diplomatic—that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its status in the world,” Obama said Monday at the White House.
In a statement, Menendez did not indicate how quickly his committee would move on the package, but said he will also work with the administration on a range of sanctions, including some against individual Russians and Ukrainians. The committee’s legislation would also seek to help Ukraine’s government with “technical assistance for energy reforms” and would “support elections, strengthen civil society, combat corruption, and assist Ukraine in the recovery of stolen assets,” Menendez said.
“Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine constitutes a clear violation of international law and demands a swift and coordinated response from the international community to support the Ukraine and counter Russian efforts to annex Ukrainian territory by force,” the New Jersey Democrat said.
It is not certain that Menendez’s package will make it to the Senate floor. While Reid sounded warm to the president’s approach, he did not indicate he would put the measure to a vote.
Some Democrats, meanwhile, immediately called for stricter economic sanctions against Russia rather than aid to Ukraine.
“The U.S. should use immediate economic and diplomatic pressure against Russia,” Senate Armed Services Committee member Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a statement. Russian President Vladimir Putin “should feel the pressure of the economic screws being tightened.”
Acknowledging Russia’s critical interests in the region, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said she had no doubt Russia had taken control of the Crimean peninsula.
“The challenge now is to prevent escalation into southern and eastern Ukraine and begin a conversation with the Russian and Ukrainian governments in order to work out a solution that preserves Ukraine’s sovereignty and recognizes Russia’s interests,” Feinstein said.
Cantor said he believes there is bipartisan support for assistance to Ukraine, “but we must make sure it is done responsibly and any legislation is not delayed by adding divisive provisions.
“We should be focused on moving such a package as quickly as possible,” he said. “The House will review how we can expeditiously consider assistance to Ukraine in the form of loan guarantees.”
The White House has already taken steps aimed at thwarting Russia’s advances in Crimea. Over the weekend, the administration announced that the U.S., along with other G-8 nations, had halted preparations for the G-8 summit in June in Sochi, Russia.
Obama called for unanimity across party lines and said no country has the right to send troops into another country unprovoked.
“My expectation is, is that I’ll be able to get Congress to work with us in order to achieve that goal,” Obama said.
The congressional reaction to the situation in Ukraine and the White House’s handling of it contrasts sharply with the administration’s approach in Iran. While Obama seeks to pursue a diplomatic approach to the question of Iranian nuclear arms, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have bucked his strategy there, calling for increased sanctions. So far, Reid has backed the White House, keeping sanctions off the floor.
In this case, though, lawmakers are emerging as supporters of the White House’s approach.
Still, that has not precluded some members from openly criticizing Obama. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a prospective 2016 presidential candidate, said in a statement that the president’s statements would mean as much to Putin as so-called red lines that Syria’s president crossed last year.
“If the Russians persist in this aggressive action, we should look into additional measures such as suspension from the World Trade Organization and even the United Nations Security Council,” Cruz said in a statement.
Billy House contributed
This article appears in the March 4, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Leaders of Both Parties Backing Obama on Ukraine.