Ukraine aid package, sanctions possible, lawmakers say

Congress is set to begin debating an economic aid package for Ukraine that's expected to cost at least $1 billion and possible sanctions against senior Russian officials involved in the ongoing military standoff, senior lawmakers said Monday.


Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), foreground. (AP)

Despite the cancellation of House and Senate proceedings Monday due to a snowstorm, top leaders were at the Capitol finalizing plans for a formal debate expected to begin next week. On the sidelines of long-scheduled meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) described the situation in Ukraine as a "crisis" and said the United States should take steps "in coordination with our allies." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Monday that there is bipartisan support for an aid package for Ukraine designed in part to "reassure allies throughout the world that the United States will not stand idly by in the face of such aggression."

"We should be focused on moving such a package as quickly as possible," Cantor said.

Lawmakers and aides said both chambers were coalescing around a plan to authorize an aid package in the form of loan guarantees and possible sanctions against unnamed Russian officials. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Monday that the aid package would cost at least $1 billion. But in a brief interview, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) declined to specify a price for the aid package.

"We’re usually very bullish about putting a lot of pressure on these regimes that misbehave so that they feel the economic consequences of it. So we think we’ve waited too long and we want to accelerate the process," he said.

Royce added that he spoke Sunday night with Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew about the possibility of imposing sanctions. "We’re trying to lead on this, because our concern is that the administration in only using rhetoric and not taking a decisive step to impose any economic consequences is allowing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to believe that he can move forward without any downside risk," Royce said.

Royce and others said that the proposal would originate in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is expected to formally debate the package next week. Menendez said in a statement that any sanctions would "range from visa bans and asset freezes, to the suspension of military cooperation and sales, as well as economic sanctions."

Congressional talks on the situation in Ukraine began last week and continued through the weekend, according to several aides not authorized to speak publicly about the discussions. In a hopeful sign, members of the Senate foreign relations panel wrote to President Obama last week expressing support for possible steps, saying that any potential monetary aid should be used to "to dissuade individuals who would foment unrest to undermine Ukraine's territorial integrity or employ coercive economic measures against the Ukrainian people and the new Ukrainian government."

As talks continue on possible legislation, at least two committee hearings have been scheduled for Thursday, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee will hear testimony from administration officials.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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