(Adds quotes from Menendez, McCain, Hoyer.)
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, March 24 A bill providing economic
assistance to Ukraine and imposing sanctions over Russia's
seizure of Crimea cleared a procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate
on Monday, as backers attempted to win passage of the
legislation later this week.
By a vote of 78-17, the Senate laid the groundwork for
debating a bill that would back a $1 billion loan guarantee for
the government in Kiev, provide $150 million in aid for Ukraine
and neighboring countries and require sanctions on Russians and
Ukrainians responsible for corruption, human rights abuses or
undermining stability in Ukraine.
Supporters of the law said Congress should act quickly and
forcefully to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from
moving further into Ukraine or any neighboring countries.
The measure, however, also includes long-delayed reforms to
the International Monetary Fund that are opposed by most
Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives, and this
has complicated efforts to pass a Ukraine aid bill.
Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House introduced a
bill on Friday that does not include the IMF reforms requested
by President Barack Obama's administration, which could set up a
time-consuming partisan showdown.
The White House has been pushing Congress for a year to
approve a shift of $63 billion from an IMF crisis fund to its
general accounts. Administration officials have said Washington
must make good on a commitment from 2010 and maintain U.S.
influence at the international lender, while strengthening an
institution that will play a key role in stabilizing Ukraine's
QUESTION OF INFLUENCE
Some Republican lawmakers complain the IMF changes would
cost too much at a time of deficits and budget cuts and lessen
U.S. influence at the international lender. All of the "no"
votes against proceeding with debate were Republicans.
New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said failing to pass the
reforms would lessen U.S. influence at the international lender
at a crucial time.
"It's the IMF that is leading the effort to stabilize
Ukraine's fragile economy, an essential task if there is to be
any chance of reaching a peaceful political solution to the
standoff with Russia," said Menendez, who co-authored the bill.
Leaders of the Group of Seven nations, meeting without
Russia, voted on Monday on steps to punish Russia in The Hague.
The vote came on the day Kiev ordered its remaining troops to
withdraw from Crimea and Russian forces captured a Ukrainian
base and a landing ship in the region.
It was not clear how Congress' political dispute would play
out. Democrats in the House have said the aid package might need
to go ahead without the IMF reforms.
Maryland Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking
House Democrat, said he backed the IMF part of the Ukraine bill.
However, he said it was important to act quickly.
"If we can't get that passed, we ought to pass the $1
billion without the IMF because we need to move as quickly as we
can to give confidence to the Ukrainian people and evidence to
the Russians that we fully intend to make sure that Ukraine is a
viable economic unit," Hoyer said at a forum in Washington
sponsored by the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee was due to vote on its
version of the Ukraine aid bill, without the IMF reforms, on
(Additional reporting by David Lawder, Anna Yukhananov and
Jason Lange; Editing by Peter Cooney, Toni Reinhold)