Congress Locked in Ukraine Aid Bill Dispute

WASHINGTON (AP) -

The Senate and House appear headed for a standoff over competing bills to authorize sanctions on Russia and provide aid to Ukraine, potentially prolonging Congress’ inaction over the two weeks since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula.

The Democratic-controlled Senate advanced its legislation in a 78-17 procedural vote Monday, sparing President Obama an embarrassing setback while he uses his weeklong overseas trip to lobby allies to punish Moscow. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed in no mood to compromise with Republicans who oppose changes in the bill relating to the International Monetary Fund.

At issue are changes that would increase the power of emerging countries in the IMF and shift some $63 billion from a crisis fund to a general account the lending body can use for economic stabilization operations around the world.

Republicans have long spurned the administration’s attempt to ratify the IMF revisions, saying they would increase the exposure of U.S. taxpayers in foreign bailouts. The Obama administration and Democrats counter that unless the U.S. approves the new rules, Washington will lose its influence at the IMF and hamper the body’s ability to avert economic meltdowns in places precisely like Ukraine.

Reid focused his ire on Republican senators who delayed his bill before lawmakers went on a break March 14. He accused them of causing Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell fired back Tuesday, accusing Reid of trying to destroy the widespread bipartisan support for providing Ukraine with aid and hitting Putin’s government with sanctions.

“Who writes this stuff?” McConnell scoffed. “It’s not just completely unhelpful. It also injects hyper-partisanship into the process at a time when we should be working together.”

Full passage of the Senate bill is likely later this week. But members of the Republican-led House are preparing to write their own Russia sanctions bill at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, supplementing the aid legislation they passed earlier this month. Neither includes any reference to IMF reforms, which House Speaker John Boehner has called unnecessary.

With no sign of Russia abandoning the Crimean Peninsula, Obama said Tuesday he’s concerned that Moscow will move deeper into Ukraine, something he said was a bad choice by Putin.

“We’re not recognizing what is happening in Crimea,” Obama said at his first news conference since Russia moved to annex Crimea after a referendum 10 days ago. Obama rejected “the notion that a referendum sloppily organized over the course of two weeks” would “somehow be a valid process.”

Obama said he didn’t think international recognition of Crimea as part of Russia is “a done deal.” But he also said, “It would be dishonest to suggest there is a simple solution to what has already taken place in Crimea,” where Russia troops are in control.

“We also are concerned about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine,” Obama said at a joint news conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “I think that will be a bad choice for President Putin to make. But ultimately he is the president of Russia, and he’s the one who’s going to be making that decision.”

Asked whether in hindsight he agrees with Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney’s assessment that Russia is the United States’ top geopolitical foe, Obama said he is more concerned about a nuclear bomb in Manhattan than in Russia.

“America’s got a whole lot of challenges,” Obama said. “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.”

In a strongly worded joint statement, the United States, France, Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan denounced a referendum in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and Russia’s ensuing annexation. In so doing, the seven leaders also effectively excluded Russia from what had been a two-decade-old coalition known as the Group of Eight.

“This clear violation of international law is a serious challenge to the rule of law around the world and should be a concern for all nations,” the declaration said.

Still, the international gestures got only a dismissive reaction from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“The G-8 is an informal club,” he said. “It has no membership tickets, and it can’t purge anyone by definition.”