WASHINGTON, DC -- Senators are adopting a new tactic in their push for President Obama to arm Ukraine against Russian-backed separatists.
Lawmakers in both parties are supporting a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would give the Obama administration $300 million for Ukrainian security assistance.
The provision specifies that half of the funding would be withheld until at least 20 percent of the money is spent on lethal aid.
While not the focus of its veto threat, the administration argues that the provision “forces the hand” of President Obama on a foreign policy decision that “should rest with the Executive Branch.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, has rejected that notion, saying that a decision from Obama on lethal aid “is long overdue.”
“The NDAA doesn’t force the president to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine,” he said in response to the administration’s threat.
“Trust me, if there were a way to do that, it would be in the bill.”
While lawmakers can’t force the president to provide weaponry, the limitation on the security assistance could tie his hands on the full funding.
Despite the push from the Senate, a senior administration official told The Hill that White House continues “to believe that there is no military resolution to the crisis” in Ukraine.
“While we continually assess our policies to ensure they are responsive, appropriate and calibrated to achieve our objectives, our focus from the outset of the crisis has been on supporting Ukraine and on pursuing a diplomatic solution that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the official added.
Senators are also upset about what they say has been a slow response from the administration to Ukraine’s request for military equipment.
McCain and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) want the administration to hand over a list of all export license applications, including those that would allow for the sale of defense materials, noting when the requests were made and a timeline for deciding the requests.
They also want Secretary of State John Kerry to provide a list of all pending requests for military sales to Ukraine, when the requests were submitted and when the administration expects to make a decision.
The two senators plan to keep the issue in the spotlight by requiring a report from the administration every three months until Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” is restored.
The security assistance isn’t the only Russian-related provision being put forward for the defense bill.
Some senators want to use the bill to block the administration from easing a ban on the use of Russian rocket engines.
Amendments from Sen. Joni Ernst would instead double down on the ban, keeping it in place unless the administration can show that Russia is no longer “violating the territorial integrity” of Ukraine, or backing separatist fighters in the country.
The Iowa Republican has separately proposed blocking the administration from using its waiver authority if Russia is still doing either of those things.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said that while he supports decreasing U.S. dependence on Russian engines, Congress should seek to prevent “dependence on Russian spacecraft.”
“Why wouldn’t we lessen our dependence on Russian spacecraft being the only means by which we get to orbit to our own international space station?” he asked after House lawmakers voted to decrease funding for the NASA.
An amendment from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) would suggest, but not force, sanctions against individuals tied to the detainment of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who is being held in Russia.
Meanwhile, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) wants to block missile defense cooperation with Russia until the administration can guarantee that Russia has pulled out of Crimea and terminated a contract with Iran to sell it a missile defense system.
The mammoth defense bill likely gives lawmakers their best chance to shape Ukraine policy, given that the legislation has passed out of Congress for the past 53 years.
But senators are running short on time to get their amendments attached, with lawmakers expected to take a procedural vote on Tuesday.
McCain, however, has pledged to continue to work to get amendments made pending, which would allow for them to come up for a vote before the Senate takes a final vote on the legislation.
Senators could also wrap the amendments into a potential managers package.
The push to increase support for Ukraine comes after several senators, including Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk earlier this month.
Durbin said after the meeting it was “clear” that Ukraine needed more economic and military assistance, including weapons.
“The United States must act swiftly to provide this assistance,” he said.
Yatsenyuk’s visit followed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s request for more military equipment.
He told lawmakers “one cannot win a war with blankets.”
A senior administration official said that since early 2014, the United States has given Ukraine approximately $195 million in security assistance.
Source: The Hill