Washington - US lawmakers are rushing to get a bill to the president's desk that would provide $1bn in loan guarantees to Ukraine and sanction those who had a hand in Russia's takeover of Crimea.
The House and Senate were poised to pass versions of the legislation on Thursday. Both sides said they want to get one bill to President Barack Obama's desk before the end of the week, but it was unclear whether the work would be finished by then.
The Senate bill authorises $1bn in loan guarantees to Ukraine and an additional $100m in direct aid. It would codify sanctions the US already has levied against some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's close friends and associates, members of his inner circle, government officials, some of the richest men in the country and a major bank.
The sanctions freeze any assets those being sanctioned currently hold within US jurisdiction and prohibit Americans from doing business with those targeted.
The Senate bill also included a proposal from one of Obama's fiercest critics, Republican Senator John McCain, enabling the president to impose economic penalties on Russian government officials for corruption even within Russia's own borders.
The House bill also authorises sanctions, loan guarantees and millions in direct aid. The House bill includes money for the Voice of America and other broadcast networks to counter what the House says is propaganda from Russian-based sources, and funds to bolster Ukraine's law enforcement and judicial systems.
The House bill also urges Obama to greatly expand the number of Russian officials and others sanctioned for human rights violations and compels the president to report to Congress on sanctioning a broad range of senior Russian officials.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday that both sides were discussing ways to get a bill out of Congress as soon as possible. Asked whether he expected problems reconciling the two bills, Boehner said, "You never know. But there's an awful lot of co-operation and discussion underway to try to avoid that."
Republican Representative Ed Royce, chairperson of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he hoped the Senate would embrace the House bill without requiring negotiations to work out differences. "Our goal is not to go to conference because of the urgency of the situation," he said.
McCain stressed the importance of providing additional defence equipment and military training to countries in central and eastern Europe, including Ukraine.
"Vladimir Putin is on the move," McCain said in a floor speech in which he called Russia a "gas station masquerading as a country".
US military readiness
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham agreed, asking rhetorically on the Senate floor: "Should the US and our Nato partners, at the request of the Ukrainian people, supply them with defensive weapons to rebuild the military gutted by pro-Russian elements?
To me the answer is yes because if you want to make Putin think twice about what he does next, he's got to pay a price greater than he has for the Crimea. If he gets away with this and he doesn't pay any price, he's going to be on steroids."
The Ukraine aid bill gained momentum this week after Democrats backed down and stripped International Monetary Fund reform language from the bill. The move signalled a retreat for the Democrats and the Obama administration, which had promoted the IMF provisions.
But with tens of thousands of Russian troops massed on Ukraine's eastern border, Senate Democrats decided it was more important to denounce Russia, codify sanctions against Putin's inner circle and support Ukraine rather than push now for the IMF changes.
Worried that Moscow was planning more land grabs, eight Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee wrote to Obama on Wednesday urging him to work with Nato allies to share with Ukraine any intelligence on Russian troop movements.
They also urged Obama to improve the readiness of US military forces in the region and pursue additional measures to bolster the security of US allies in eastern and central Europe.
In a meeting with Nato's secretary-general on Wednesday in Brussels, Obama pledged to defend US allies and said every Nato partner needed to "chip in" for mutual defence. He said members should examine their defence plans to make sure they reflect current threats.