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Congress Appears to Support $1.6 Billion Russian Aid Package

By Michael Ross
Los Angeles Times


Even though it comes at a time when they are sharply divided over proposals for domestic spending cuts and tax increases, members of Congress appear to be broadly supportive of the $1.6 billion Russian aid package announced by President Clinton in Vancouver.

But Clinton faces a much harder sell over the additional aid he is expected to ask Congress to approve over the next few months, lawmakers warn.

"Finding more money for Russia is not going to be easy when we are cutting major domestic programs and raising taxes," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate subcommittee that appropriates foreign aid.

"The president is going to have to make a very, very strong case" for a new Russian aid package and he must to do it "within the confines of an overall foreign aid budget that is going to be cut this year."

The package that Clinton announced during his meeting with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin is unlikely to meet resistance --even from conservatives who traditionally oppose foreign aid --because it is drawn entirely from funds already appropriated but not yet spent because of bureaucratic delays in Washington and Moscow.

"Members can support it because it involves no debate, no politically embarrassing vote on foreign aid, that they then have to go home and explain to their constituents," said a senior House Foreign Affairs Committee aide.

The package, moreover, has been "constructed to appeal not only to Russians, but to constituents here at home," noted Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee. Its largest component --$700 million in grain credits --is a boon to U.S. farmers, while other aspects of the package offer potential benefits to the energy industry and other private sector businesses, Hamilton added.

But the dynamics of the debate will be much different as Clinton consults with Congress in the coming weeks over future aid to Russia. How much more aid Clinton will request from Congress is not clear yet, although Democratic leaders expect to find out in the next few weeks.

The administration last month served notice it would seek to raise the amount appropriated for Russia in its fiscal 1994 budget request to $700 million --a $300 million increase over 1993. But the White House has yet to present its formal request and some lawmakers said after the summit that Clinton may be about to ask for even more.

In Vancouver, Clinton made it clear that the $1.6 billion aid package was only the first installment on a much larger package of both bilateral and multilateral assistance he would seek from Congress and the Group of Seven industrialized nations, whose foreign and finance ministers are to meet in Tokyo on April 14 and 15 to discuss ways of stabilizing Russia's economy.

White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos said Monday that Clinton will consult closely with congressional leaders and the G-7 partners "over the next several weeks," but he refused to comment on the size of the new package Clinton may request.

Although it has been overshadowed by the bitter budget debate, a broad bipartisan consensus existed even before the Vancouver summit on the need to do more to help Yeltsin's reforms succeed. "It was Yeltsin who ... faced down the hardliners and who repudiated communism," Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., said on the eve of the summit. "We need to show the Russian people that the risk was worth taking and I've told the president he has bipartisan support in Congress for assisting Russia because it is in our national interest"

But that consensus exists only within the fairly rigid bounadries of an overall foreign aid budget that for political reasons will have to be lower than this year's total of $14 billion.

Coming on top of spending cuts, tax increases and the unrelated but politically difficult debates that loom over health care reform and gays in the military, anything above this year's total is a virtual non-starter, Leahy and others have warned.