Congress moves toward approval of Ukrainian aid deal


Ukrainians bring food to Ukrainian soldiers who stand guard at a checkpoint not far from the border with Crimea near the village of Strilkove, Kherson, Ukraine, March 27, 2014.(Roman Pilipey/EPA)

Updated 3:34 p.m.

Congress moved closer to approving an aid package for Ukraine Thursday that will provide the country with $1 billion in loan guarantees and about $150 million in direct U.S. assistance as well as codify stiff sanctions against senior Russian officials involved in the ongoing standoff.

The U.S. Senate unanimously approved the deal at midday Thursday, sending it back to the House for final approval. Around the same time, the House voted 399 to 19 to approve a similar aid package. House and Senate leaders were expected to sort out remaining minor differences before sending the final deal to President Obama for his signature either Thursday or Friday.

As part of the process, the Senate is expected to pass a House measure that authorizes more broadcasts of U.S.-backed news programming produced by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe into Ukraine and neighboring countries, according to senior House and Senate aides familiar with the process. In exchange, the House plans to pass the Senate bill.

The votes came just hours after the IMF announced plans to provide Ukraine with up to $18 billion in assistance over the next two years in hopes of keeping the country's economy afloat and bolstering the government as it attempts to build democratic institutions.

At a news conference in Rome alongside Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Obama called the IMF agreement “a major step forward,” and urged Congress to approve its aid deal.

The developments Thursday came amid an intense three weeks of developments as congressional leaders have been working quickly to codify into law a series of executive actions taken by Obama in response to the standoff between Russia and Ukraine.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Thursday that lawmakers are working quickly to respond to "a constant evolution of what is happening in events" in Ukraine and Russia.

Once passed, the measure will authorize $1 billion in loan guarantees, $50 million for democracy, governance and civil society assistance and $100 million in security assistance for Ukraine and other countries in the region. The agreement also will impose stiff sanctions against senior Russian and Ukrainian officials responsible for the ongoing tensions. The agreement also authorizes the Treasury Department to closely monitor Russian banks for signs that they are undermining Ukrainian assets; will bolster Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasts into Ukraine and Crimea; and calls for increased U.S. investments in the Ukrainian economy.

Congressional response to the ongoing crisis began in the House, which authorized the $1 billion loan guarantee with little opposition more than two weeks ago. In the Senate, the package was amended to include sanctions against senior officials. Supporters also added changes long-sought by the White House that would shift about $63 billion in IMF money from a crisis fund to a general account. But Democrats agreed to remove those provisions this week amid strong GOP opposition to doing so.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) also faced criticism from Republicans for suggesting on Monday that Republican objections to proceeding with the aid package sooner might have contributed to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

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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