Ukraine aid package stalls in Congress amid Republican infighting and partisan bickering

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) became angry Thursday with some of his Republican colleagues, who objected to legislation that would aid Ukraine’s government. (The Associated Press)

A proposed U.S. aid package for Ukraine’s fledgling pro-Western government stalled Thursday amid festering Republican Party feuds over foreign policy.

Tensions erupted on the Senate floor late in the day after the chamber did not advance the measure, with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) berating the dozen or so of his Republican colleagues who, for various reasons, objected to the legislation.

“You can call yourself Republicans. That’s fine, because that’s your voter registration. Don’t call yourself Reagan Republicans,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “Ronald Reagan would never — would never let this kind of aggression go unresponded to by the American people.”

Some Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) — a foreign aid critic and potential 2016 presidential candidate — opposed the package because they said it would indirectly benefit Russia, because the Ukrainian government owes the Russian Federation billions of dollars.

Others objected to the addition of a White House-backed provision, not directly related to the Russia-Ukraine standoff, that would spur reforms at the International Monetary Fund.

Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), speaking on behalf of opposition GOP senators, said his colleagues wanted to quickly approve the aid but objected to “provisions that are unrelated to the crisis in Ukraine and not needed immediately and must be debated by this body.”

The proposal has bipartisan support and includes loan guarantees, aid for democracy-building initiatives, funding for security cooperation and sanctions against Russian officials involved in the recent conflict.

A House version of the package passed last week.

But on Thursday, it became clear that aid for Ukraine could become the next casualty of congressional dysfunction and feuding among, and between, the parties.

The latest round of GOP infighting was sparked by the IMF provision, which includes changes long sought by the White House that would shift about $63 billion from a crisis fund to a general account.

Doing so would make good on a pledge by the Obama administration and ensure greater U.S. influence over the world body, supporters said.

The dispute bumped up against attempts to quickly approve aid for Ukraine before lawmakers leave Friday for another week-long recess. And the impasse played out as Russian troops began massing just days before a referendum is set in Crimea over whether the region should split from Ukraine. World financial markets also teetered Thursday as the standoff intensified. The Dow Jones industrial average finished down, in part because of the conflict.

After the emotional floor speech, McCain and seven other senators flew to Ukraine to meet with the country’s political leaders. The group includes Barrasso, whose objections late Thursday prompted McCain’s lecture.

The debate has divided Republicans in recent days, with some backing the Senate plan and others saying that IMF reforms should be left out of any assistance to Ukraine.

“I understand the administration wants the IMF money, but it has nothing at all to do with Ukraine,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters, adding that the Senate should quickly approve the House-passed measure.

But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close McCain ally, said he backs the IMF changes because the institution “can provide stability at a time we need it. From the long view, the IMF is a strategic tool for United States foreign policy. We would be shortsighted to not embrace this reform.”

Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, also supports including the IMF reforms as part of a new aid deal.

“We’ve got the votes” in the full Senate to pass the aid package, he told reporters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the Senate will take up the issue again when Congress reconvenes on March 24.

Reid earlier Thursday accused Republicans of holding up Ukrainian aid in hopes of getting the Obama administration to end plans for a proposed regulation that would dramatically change how nonprofit groups engage in political activity.

In doing so, Reid said, Republicans were more interested in helping their campaign donors, including the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, who are bankrolling conservative political groups helping GOP congressional candidates.

“This is hard for me to comprehend, how with a clear conscience they can say, ‘Ukrainians, we probably can’t help you because we’re trying to protect the Koch brothers,’ ” Reid told reporters. “And not only that, they’re saying to the American people that protecting the Koch brothers is more important than protecting our country.”

A senior Republican aide disputed Reid’s account but did not dispute that GOP leaders had raised the possibility of delaying the Internal Revenue Service’s implementation of the regulation targeting nonprofit political groups.

“This is entirely about IMF, not Ukraine,” said the aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “If the Democrats want to remove the IMF provisions, the bill could be done.”

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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