Dems: Wait for Europe Before Hitting Putin’s Wallet

The Senate is trying to put together a tough bill to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, but Democrats don’t want to act until they know whether or not Europe is on board.

03.05.14 9:44 PM ET

Senators are talking tough about a new bill to put economic pressure on Russia and speed aid to the new leaders in Ukraine. But behind the scenes there is an effort by Democrats to give President Obama time and space to negotiate with Europe on the sanctions, delaying quick action against Vladimir Putin.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that Congress should let the events in Ukraine play out for a while to see if Europe can be brought on board with the tough economic measures  that many Senators in both parties are pushing. Today, Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Murphy said that he and other senators were working the phones this week, dialing up lawmakers in Germany, Britain, and other countries to make the case for strong sanctions against Russian now.

“Our sanctions are pretty toothless without Europe… I think there’s a legitimate question about whether we should wait to do this package,” said Murphy.

Murphy, who traveled with Sen. John McCain to Kiev during the protests that led to the latest Ukrainian revolution and the subsequent Russian invasion of Crimea, said the sanctions debate “really this comes down to whether Europe is going to join us.”

“Europe is not where they need to be right now. They are willing to give Putin a longer leash than we are. I’m trying to make the case to them that without Europe, our sanctions won’t be able to change the calculus in Moscow,” he said. “I think Europe is taking more of a wait and see approach than the United States bill right now. I think ultimately they may join us, but they just don’t have the urgency that we do.”

Committee leaders Robert Menendez and Bob Corker are leading the effort to build bipartisan support for a sanctions and aid package currently being crafted. Both committee leaders briefed their colleagues on the package at separate caucus lunches on Wednesday.

Murphy said the focus on European cooperation was fueling the key dispute over the sanctions legislation behind the scenes. Some Democrats on the committee want the sanctions in the bill to be “permissive,” meaning that President Obama can choose which to implement and when. That would allow the administration to work more closely with Europe, but might also allow him to move weaker sanctions than Congress would like.

“I think the president should have broad discretion as to which sanctions to apply and when to apply them,” said Murphy.

On the other hand, some Senate Republicans want the sanctions to be “mandatory,” meaning that the president would have to implement all of the sanctions in the bill if he wants the aid that goes with the sanctions. Sen. Lindsey Graham said that Congress shouldn’t wait until Europe is ready to punish Putin.

“Time matters, and until you push back, he’s not really going to get the message,” said Graham. “I know that we could unilaterally do things that would matter; the best outcome would be do it together [with Europe]."

According to multiple Senate committee aides, the current idea as of Wednesday afternoon was to include a $1 billion loan guarantee that would be secured through the International Monetary Fund, give Ukraine $50 million directly for support civil society, include asset freezes and travel bans for Russian officials and business leaders, and express the sense of the Senate that the Russian incursion into Crimea was a breach of international law and should not be able to stand.

The current thinking is that Congress would not have to come up with any new funds for the Ukraine bill; the money would be transferred from left over 2013 money in the account designated to fight the war on terror, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account.

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There is some debate behind the scenes over whether the bill should sanction only those that were involved in the chain of command in the decision—or give the president broad discretion to sanction Russian banks and Russian petrochemical companies. The administration also wants the bill to include reforms to how the U.S. government interacts with the IMF, potentially creating another problem for the bill, according to Murphy.

Sen. Marco Rubio predicted Wednesday that the package would ultimately garner broad bipartisan support. He said that the president has enough authority to implement some sanctions on his own and Congress ultimately wants to give him the authority to bring other sanctions against Putin, his business leader friends, and his supporters who have assets in the U.S. He said he was also open to broad sanctions against the Russian banking sector and trade sanctions as well.

“If individuals have ties to the Russian government and they are supportive of the things that Putin is doing, those individuals should be targeted… if they can be linked somehow to the human rights abuses and the international violations of the Russian government, they should be susceptible to sanctions,” he said.

The earliest the bill could be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is next week. Aides said that there was no particular rush and final passage could take up to a month. That would give the administration more time to bring the Europeans in line and decide which sanctions would help reinforce their policy.

Some aides said there was concern that any Ukraine bill might become a “Christmas tree” that could become a magnet for various other Russia related items, complicating the bill’s path to the president’s desk. Graham said that the bill should include “anything you can think of to make it sting.”

In the House, Foreign Affairs Committee leaders Ed Royce and Eliot Engel introduced a non-binding resolution Wednesday that would condemn the Russian invasion of Crimea and call for unspecified sanctions against Russia. That bill is a placeholder to get the House on record while the Senate works on the more detailed legislation, aides said.

We must place tough sanctions on Russian high-ranking officials, state-owned banks and commercial enterprises, and key individuals behind the Russian intervention,” Royce said in a statement. “Only by forcing Vladimir Putin to reverse his aggression and by supporting Ukraine in this time of national crisis can we hope to restore peace in the region.” 

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will be on Capitol Hill Thursday morning, testifying at a previously scheduled Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. The topic listed for the hearing is Syria. “I think it will be all about Ukraine,” said Murphy.