The Senate moved Monday to advance aid and sanctions for Ukraine, though the fight over the emergency funding measure is just beginning.
Senators voted 78-17 to move forward with the aid bill, which includes changes to the International Monetary Fund long sought by President Barack Obama but stymied by Republican opposition in the House of Representatives.
All 17 no votes were Republicans.
Senate Democratic leaders said they expect to pass the bill later this week and send it to the House of Representatives, where the battle over the IMF provision will continue. The House passed a Ukraine aid bill on March 6 that has $1 billion in loan guarantees but excludes the IMF provision.
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The Senate bill provides $1 billion in loan guarantees for the Kiev government and $150 million in aid for Ukraine and neighboring countries. It also imposes sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians linked to corruption and human rights atrocities in Ukraine.
But the IMF provision is a sticking point. It allows the IMF to move $63 billion from its crisis fund to its general fund and re-balance its board of directors to give nations like Russia, China, Brazil and India a greater voice.
Conservative Republicans in the Senate and House called the IMF provision unrelated to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and argued that changing the structure of the IMF board would dilute U.S. influence over the fund.
Republicans Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Pat Roberts of Kansas last week demanded a separate vote to strip the IMF provision from the Senate bill.
But Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued that the crisis in Ukraine was too dire for lawmakers to get hung up on the IMF and urged that the legislation move forward.
“If we don’t send this message now with this package in a bipartisan and strong manner, Vladimir Putin will be encouraged to enact further acts of aggression against Crimea and in the region,” McCain said.
Though McCain agrees with Obama that Ukraine needs U.S. aid as quickly as possible, he had harsh words for the president’s handling of the crisis.
Noting that Obama is in Europe this week consulting allies on Ukraine, McCain said, “I hope he is leading in Europe rather than just consulting in Europe.”
Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, urged senators to vote against moving the aid bill forward because of the IMF measure and warned that the vote would be included on the group’s legislative report card.
But congressional Republicans have signaled that they’d be amenable to supporting the IMF provision if the Obama administration would agree to delay Internal Revenue Service implementation of a new rule curtailing political activities of tax-exempt groups.
Tea party and other conservative groups assert that the rule infringes upon free speech. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of holding up aid to Ukraine to “protect the anonymity of their big-time donors.”
Reid blamed his favorite target for Congress’ inability to swiftly pass a Ukraine aid package to get to Obama’s desk: the billionaire Koch brothers.
“Republicans objected to moving forward with this aid package to protect the ability of the Koch brothers and other GOP donors who hide behind shadowy groups, groups that spent millions on misleading attack ads,” Reid said. “This is the reason for holding up something that is so important to 46 million Ukrainians and important to our country.”