On Ukraine, It’s the Hare, the Tortoise … and Then the Senate

The Senate proclaimed Ukraine an emergency, and then went on vacation for a week.

Russian officers walk past the Ukrainian marine battalion headquarters in the Crimean city of Feodosia on March 23, 2014. Ukraine's Western-backed leaders voiced fears on Sunday of an imminent Russian invasion of the eastern industrial heartland following the fall of their last airbase in Crimea to defiant Kremlin troops. 
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
March 24, 2014, 6:15 p.m.

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.

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