Congress United on Punishing Russia, Divided on How We Got to This Point
WASHINGTON -- Just days after Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula, Congress is moving full-speed-ahead on a series of symbolic and punitive measures directed at President Vladimir Putin as the Kremlin vows to retaliate against any sanctions.
The White House has been dialing back sanctions threats as it claims Putin is on "pause," with press secretary Jay Carney today urging Russia to take the "easy off-ramp" and allow UN or OSCE monitors in occupied Crimea. "There is an easy way out here for Russia, and we certainly hope they take it," he said.
On Thursday, the House debates a fast-tracked bill from Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) to modify current appropriations law and extend U.S.-backed loan guarantees to Ukraine as it tries to find its financial footing during the rocky transition period.
“Ukraine is a friend and valued partner to the United States, and as partners, we assist when another is in need," Rogers said. "This legislation will help the government of Ukraine restore economic stability, and show the world that America supports the Ukrainian people."
At the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced a resolution condemning the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and calling for sanctions on Russian officials and banks.
“It is important that Congress support tough sanctions on Russia to pressure it to end its military aggression and provide assistance to bolster Ukraine's new government. This resolution is the first step toward accomplishing that," Royce said. "We must place tough sanctions on Russian high-ranking officials, state-owned banks and commercial enterprises, and key individuals behind the Russian intervention."
State Department officials have been called before Royce's panel on Thursday as well as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the House Intelligence Committee, lawmakers are probing why the invasion apparently took the administration by surprise. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were advocating the addition of names to the Magnitsky List sanctions originally passed to target human-rights violators.
It's a spectacularly bipartisan affair -- until it comes to discussing how Putin felt so emboldened to do as he pleases on the world stage in the first place.
"Can you think of any place in the world, any place, where we're better off now than we were when [President Obama] came to office?" Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters after a policy luncheon on the Hill Wednesday. "I'm hard-pressed to think of any single place in the world where we're better off. And it takes you back to the speech that the president made in Cairo in 2009, where he seemed to be questioning American exceptionalism, and the uniqueness of our own country. And he's acted in such a way, almost amounting to passivity in many instances."
"…We seem to be pulling back everywhere. And so it's no wonder that Putin looks at the United States, and sort of concludes that no matter what he does, he doesn't pay a price for it."
"Russian reset has been a total failure; that we have projected weakness in our foreign policy and now in our defense policy with our military budget that the president's proposing," House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said on CNN. "…And I think when you have the world superpower having a foreign policy that, in my opinion, is weak and a defense policy now that shows weakness, I think it invites aggression. I think that it create as vacuum that's filled by these types of actions."
The past chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), said "Putin is putting us to the test."
"Are we going to back up our words with actions or is this going to be a situation like Syria where the president said, this is a red line, the use of chemical arms will -- weapons will not be tolerated, we will do limited airstrikes and then he pulled back on that?" she told CNN. "…Let's see what this administration is willing to do. But I hope that we don't talk a big game and then just play small ball."
The criticism also came from the Senate floor. "This president does not understand Vladimir Putin," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on Tuesday. "He does not understand his ambitions. He does not understand that Vladimir Putin is an old KGB colonel bent on restoration of the Soviet, of the Russian Empire."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), however, went back one administration when talking to reporters outside the Democrats' policy luncheon on Wednesday.
"Well, remember, one of our prior presidents said that he looked into his eyes," Reid said when asked about Obama and Putin.
"Now, I wonder if the Republicans who are -- the right wing who are criticizing the president -- do they think that we should be in Iraq mode, maybe? I don't understand what they're saying. I think the cautious direction of the president has been very good," Reid said.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) gave a report on Ukraine sanctions legislation in the caucus meeting, but Reid said he didn't know when it would move onto the floor for a vote.
"Senator Corker tried to move forward with an aid package we should be able to get out of here as soon as we can. Whether I can do it next week, I don't know. The weather has really hurt us," Reid said. "…It's my understanding they're going to have legislation on… certain gifts, aid to the Ukrainian government, and let them know that we support their efforts."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tied Crimea to an earlier Obama scandal. "It started with Benghazi. When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression," he tweeted Tuesday. "Putin basically came to the conclusion after Benghazi, Syria, Egypt - everything Obama has been engaged in - he's a weak indecisive leader."
When asked if he agreed with Graham, though, Ryan said, "Oh, I don't know about that."
"Look, first of all, who is to blame for this? Vladimir Putin. I mean, the Russians invaded the sovereignty of the Ukraine," the 2012 vice presidential nominee said. "So let's put the blame where it belongs."