WASHINGTON -Congress took its first official steps to address the ongoing international crisis in Ukraine on Thursday, with a leading House committee approving a symbolic resolution condemning Russia's recent actions, and the U.S. House advancing legislation to provide Ukraine with up to $1 billion in economic relief.
The House Foreign Relations Committee's resolution condemns Russia for its occupation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and called on the Obama administration to enact tough financial and trade sanctions against Russia.
The measure represents a formal call from lawmakers on Capitol Hill to President Obama for sanctions to add pressure to Russia to back down from its military presence in Crimea.
The move by the panel, which had bipartisan support, came just hours after the White House announced it was imposing visa restrictions on unnamed Russian and Ukrainian citizens who are "responsible for or complicit in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."
Earlier on Thursday, Crimea's pro-Russia administration announced a March 16 referendum on whether Crimea should become part of Russia.
But Republican lawmakers, who have stepped up their criticism of Obama's foreign policy as the Ukraine crisis has deepened, are pressing for tougher action against Russia.
The Foreign Affairs committee resolution calls on Obama and other Group of Eight member countries to not attend the group's upcoming summit in Sochi, Russia, and to consider expelling Russia from the group.
It also calls on the administration to work with European allies and other countries to impose visa, financial, trade and other sanctions on senior Russian Federation officials, majority state-owned banks and commercial organizations, and other state agencies.
"We must remember that the purpose of our pressure on Russia is not simply to punish aggression -- and certainly it is not to escalate the confrontation - -but instead to move Putin toward a resolution that protects the territorial integrity of Ukraine," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., who co-sponsored the resolution.
The U.S. and its European allies' focus so far has been centered on securing an aid package for the deeply indebted Ukraine and finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff with Russia. But with Putin disputing basic aspects of the military incursion, the focus in Washington has turned toward sanctions.
Also Thursday, the House voted overwhelming, 385-23, to make Ukraine eligible for up to $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees under an existing State Department program.
"As Ukraine fights for democracy and against authoritarian rule, it will continue to face uncharted territory and real economic risks," said House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., "These loan guarantees are an important first step for the country to strengthen its finances, begin to make its economy more efficient, and help successfully navigate this transition."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, voiced support Thursday to the Obama administration's decision to implement Russian visa restrictions, and said the president has willing partners in Congress to offer a stronger response to Russia's actions in the Ukraine.
"(Putin) is counting on the United States to sit back and watch him do and take whatever he wants," Boehner told reporters Thursday on Capitol Hill, calling the limited sanctions a "welcome first step" and that Congress remains "committed to working with the administration to give President Obama as many tools as needed to put President Putin in check and to prevent Russia from infringing on the sovereignty of any of its neighbors."
Congress could vote on further sanctions as early as next week, Boehner said.
NATO's 28 nations decided Wednesday to suspend a joint mission with Russia, as well as planned civilian and military meetings. The White House also announced that it has suspended military and economic talks. And the U.S. and the European members of the Group of Eight industrialized nations all have halted preparations for the planned summit in Sochi.
The push on the White House for tougher sanctions against Russia is coming from both sides of the aisle. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is pushing for a package that would blacklist Russian individuals, banks and petrochemical companies.
But both Republican and Democratic lawmakers say that the sanctions will be ineffective without buy-in from Europe, which thus far has been reluctant to consider economic retribution against Russia, because it relies on Moscow for its energy needs.
"I certainly believe we should have strong sanctions," said Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J. "I don't think Putin understands anything else. But how can we get strong sanctions when Europe has become more and more dependent on energy from Russia?"
Eric Rubin, the deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, told a House panel on Thursday that the Obama administration believes "there needs to be coordinated international approach to make clear to the Russian Federation that there will be certain consequences for Russia, for Russia's economy, for Russia's standing in the world if Russia continues down this course of action."
And in a nudge to Europe, the Obama administration noted that Russian economy is just as dependent on the West.
"I would observe there is a co-dependence," said Daleep Singh, assistant Treasury secretary for Europe and Eurasia. "Yes, Europe relies, roughly a third of its energy imports come from Russia, but so to does Russia depend on those [exports]."