WASHINGTON - Congress is close to sending President Barack Obama a bill to give $1 billion in loan guarantees to cash-strapped Ukraine and provide the administration broad authority to levy more sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea.
On a voice vote, the Senate approved its version of the legislation Thursday. The House endorsed a different version on a 399-19 vote and was poised to pass the Senate version Friday, the final step needed to send the bill to Obama.
"We must target those guilty of aggression against Ukraine and stand by our allies and friends to ensure peace and security in Europe," the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Rep. Ed Royce said.
"Passage of this bill by the House today demonstrates that our words do have meaning and sends a clear message of American resolve that will be heard in Kiev, in Moscow, and around the world," Royce added.
The votes came as Obama wrapped up a three-country European trip during which he solicited support of allies in challenging Russia's moves in Ukraine. The rare congressional unity contrasted with recent partisan divisions over the Ukraine package, including disputes over new IRS regulations on groups claiming tax-exempt status and International Monetary Fund reforms.
In a retreat two days ago, Senate Democrats backed down and stripped the IMF reform language from the bill, a defeat for the Obama administration, which had promoted the IMF provisions.
Ukraine, a nation of 46 million people, is battling to install a semblance of normalcy since Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in February after months of protests ignited by his decision to back away from closer relations with the European Union and turn toward Russia.
During the past few weeks an interim government has formed in Kiev and Ukraine lost Crimea to Russia after a public referendum the Obama administration claimed was illegal. Further possible military incursions by Russia are feared. Ukraine is bracing for a turbulent political season ahead of an upcoming presidential vote and needs $35 billion during the next two years to avoid default.
Asked whether the $1 billion in loan guarantees that Congress was pledging was enough, Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that the U.S. was the largest contributor to the IMF, which on Thursday pledged up to $18 billion in loans to prop up Ukraine's teetering economy. The money was hinged on structural reforms that Ukraine has pledged to undertake.
Other donors, including the European Union and Japan, already have pledged further aid to Ukraine, conditioned on the conclusion of an IMF bailout and reform package. The total amount of international assistance will be about $27 billion over the next two years.
Taken together, all the assistance is in the "ballpark of what we need," Menendez said.