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
What We're Following See More »
Following their meeting, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, briefly addressed the media, with Peña Nieto subtly rebuking Trump's rhetoric. While he spoke respectfully about Trump, Peña Nieto did not back down, saying that free trade has proved effective and that illegal immigration into America from the south has decreased over the last ten years while the flow of people and drugs into Mexico has increased. Additionally, he stressed that Mexicans in America are "honest" and "deserve respect." Trump responded, calling some Mexicans "tremendous people" while saying others are "beyond reproach." Trump laid out five important issues, including the end of illegal immigration and the ability for either country to build a wall or border. However, Trump said he did not discuss who would pay for the wall.
A divided Supreme Court "refused Wednesday to reinstate North Carolina’s voter identification requirement and keep just 10 days of early in-person voting. The court rejected a request by Gov. Pat McCrory and other state officials to delay a lower court ruling that found the state law was tainted by racial discrimination."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said Monday he'd now be willing to hold a hearing on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in a lame-duck session of Congress. While he said he wouldn't push for it, he said if "Hillary Clinton wins the White House, and a majority of senators convinced him to do so," he would soften his previous opposition.