It’s a crisis in Crimea! Russian troops have crossed the border. The region’s citizens have voted to break away from Ukraine. And all the while, the specter of Vladimir Putin looms large, hungrily eyeing other territories that once belonged to the Soviet Union.
At least, that’s the story being told on the Senate floor, where legislators from both parties are alternating angst-ridden speeches over the newly emboldened Putin.
But if Congress really sees a crisis, nothing about their response shows it. The Senate spent last week out of session without approving the roughly $1 billion aid package to Ukraine that so many members insisted was so urgently needed.
The Senate voted 78-17 Monday in a procedural matter that moves them toward a Ukraine aid bill, but don’t be fooled: It’s only the first step in a long line of procedural wrangling that as of yet has no clear path to the finish line.
Technically, Monday’s vote was just a cloture vote (meaning it needed support from 60 senators) on a motion to proceed on the bill. That motion starts a 30-hour clock for the Senate to proceed to a debate on the bill. Thereafter, the chamber will need another successful cloture vote to officially take up the legislation.
It is unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would allow any votes on amendments to the Ukraine bill, which could reignite a perennial fight with Republicans over process. After all that is resolved, they can move to a straight up-or-down vote to pass it.
Of course, the package’s successful completion through all those votes is far from certain.
Lawmakers are divided over a part of the proposal that would change the conditions under which the U.S. contributes to the International Monetary Fund.
Some Republicans, particularly in the House, are objecting to the changes, which would boost the fund’s ability to provide aid to countries in a crisis like the Ukraine and bolster the responsibility of other nations.
The House is also working on a Ukraine-aid bill. Their version does not include the IMF changes—and the chamber’s Republican leadership is dead-set against them. On March 6, the House passed a bill to provide $1 billion in loan guarantees. This week it is working on additional legislation to support independence and economic reforms in the Ukraine and wage sanctions against Russia.
The IMF reforms, however, are a priority for Democrats and the administration.
“We must have IMF reform,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a Senate hearing. “It would be a terrible message to the Ukraine not to be able to follow through” on boosting the fund’s lending capacity.
But when pressed later in the House, Kerry said, “I want both, and I want them both now.... But if I can’t have one, we have got to have aid; we’ve just got to get the aid immediately. We can’t be toying around here at a critical moment for Ukraine.”
House aides, who do not see a compromise on the horizon, say they hope that the Senate will take up the House bills, which together include essentially the same set of measures, minus the IMF piece. Senate aides argue they will have to wait and see what Tuesday’s party-caucus luncheons bring. Several lawmakers traveled to Ukraine over the recess and will likely discuss their Ukraine legislation strategies in those meetings.
Ultimately though, to solve the Ukraine stalemate in Congress, many analysts argue that Senate Democratic leaders and the administration will have to relent and be prepared to settle for less on the IMF measures.
“It will pass without the IMF reforms,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow with the liberal Center for American Progress. “It might end up with some hortatory language or something like that, but they are not going to make it binding.”
Some analysts fear the outcome, including Steven Bucci, a foreign and national security director with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“I’m concerned that we will end up in a deadlock looking more impotent than we already look,” he said.
This article appears in the March 25, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as On Ukraine: It's the Hare, the Tortoise ... and the Senate.