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Washington Digest: Congress Backs Ukraine Aid And Russian Sanctions

WASHINGTON – Congress last week neared completion of legislation that would assist Ukraine’s new government and impose sanctions to express U.S. outrage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“With the people of Ukraine now in dire need of assistance and under imminent threat, there has never been a more critical moment to show our support,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

The Senate and House passed similar bills with little opposition. Proponents expect a final version will reach President Obama’s desk within the week.

The legislation is expected to include $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and other assistance in building a stable democratic society. Sanctions in the bill would include asset freezes and visa revocations on Russian officials responsible for undermining the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine and other offenses.

Republicans and Democrats in both chambers used the debate to voice their opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his role in Crimea breaking away from Ukraine to join Russia.

“Vladimir Putin’s recent military invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea stand in direct violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law. His aggression may only continue unless we in America, along with our allies, respond with strength,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

Opponents of the legislation included a handful of Republicans and Democrats opposed to foreign interventions as well as conservatives concerned with how International Monetary Fund aid sent to Ukraine would be spent.

Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., worried the aid could be used to repay Russian debts, which would have the perverse impact of rewarding Putin.

“They could use it to pay off debt to the Russians and I share that concern. I want to know how the dollars are going to be spent,” Heller said.

The Senate approved its bill, 98-2.

Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., voted for it.

The House approved its bill, 399-19.

Reps. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Steve Womack, R-Rogers, voted in favor.

Long-term jobless benefits nears Senate approval

The Senate advanced legislation that would temporarily restore expired federal benefits for the long-term unemployed.

A procedural vote that passed 65-34 puts the Senate on a path to approving the jobless benefits extension next week. Its fate, however, is far from decided in the House where Speaker John Boehner has voiced opposition to the measure.

Republican opposition focused mainly on how to pay for the additional benefits.

The federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which expired on Dec. 28, provided additional weeks of benefits to those unable to find work after using up the 26 weeks of benefits states typically provide. The bill would extend benefits for five months, retroactive to December 28 when the program expired.

Under the legislation, an estimated 2.7 million Americans would receive modest assistance of about $300 to $350 a week as they seek employment, according to proponents.

Pryor voted to advance the bill. Boozman opposed it.

House approves restrictions on naming national monuments

The House approved legislation to restrict the president from unilaterally designating federal lands as national monuments.

Republican proponents complained that President Obama has designated a half dozen monuments in the past year with no input from Congress or the public despite the significant restrictions to access and use of these federal lands.

“The American people and their elected leaders deserve to have a say in which of their lands deserve special protections as national monuments and which should, instead, be allowed to contribute to the full range of recreational, conservation, economic, and resource benefits that carefully managed multiple-use lands provide,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

Opponents said the bill was unnecessary. Presidents have had the authority to create national monuments for more than a century and Obama has used the authority sparingly and with public input, they said.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., whose district includes the latest national monument, said it is false to claim that President Obama is “abruptly and arbitrarily” naming national monuments.

“Before President Obama added Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands to the California Coastal National Monument, literally, the entire community in that area that I represent, all of the stakeholders were not only engaged, they had been engaged for several years,” Huffman said.

The bill was approved 222-201 largely along party lines. The Senate is not expected to take it up.

Cotton, Crawford, Griffin and Womack voted for the bill.

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