Aid package to former Soviet states appears unlikely during election year

May 29, 1992|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Election-year jitters on Capitol Hill appear to have doomed chances that President Bush will be able to present President Boris N. Yeltsin with a major aid package while the Russian president is here next month.

The gloomy outlook diminishes expectations of both a Bush political glow from the June meeting and the United States' leadership role in trying to solidify free-market democracy in the former Soviet republics. It also comes as Russia's government confronts barriers to its ambitious economic reform plans, eliciting expert warnings of hyperinflation and worsening budget deficits.

Chances of passage by mid-June in the Senate, where support is greatest, are now less than 50 percent, by some estimates. Prospects are worse in the House, and could even push final passage past the November elections.

Even more problematic is the financial core of the package, a $12 billion appropriation to replenish the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the agency guiding and funding Russia's economic reforms.

The problems on Capitol Hill are a mixture of election-year fright over public reaction to a major foreign aid bill, a heightened push to help the nation's cities after the Los Angeles riots, lingering bitterness over Bush administration opposition to Israeli loan guarantees and sheer partisan jockeying.

When he outlined the aid package, in the Senate on April 9, Secretary of State James A. Baker III cast it in dramatic terms, saying "the choices we make now will have consequences for decades to come."

Asking Congress to pass the so-called Freedom Support Act bill before Mr. Yeltsin's June 16-17 visit, he said, "With passage of the act, we will be poised to use the June summit as a springboard for Russian-American partnership and broader support for democracy across Russia and Eurasia."

The bill authorizes $3 billion to stabilize currencies and approves a variety of programs to promote democracy, encourage free markets, help the republics demilitarize and improve nuclear safety. It would stimulate agriculture and energy sectors, and promote trade.

It also removes what Mr. Baker called legal "barnacles" left over from the Cold War that hamper dealings with the former Communist giant.

But specifics aside, the bill was also promoted by the Bush administration as a statement of bipartisan political will to "do the right thing."

Mr. Baker called it "as much a policy statement as a legislative package," and one that would "mobilize the American people."

The measure drew strong bipartisan support from the Senate and House foreign affairs committees, but efforts to use this as leverage for broader support have fallen flat.

RF A senior administration official now says the administration never

had high expectations of House passage before the Yeltsin visit. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said this week that it was unlikely and that the House would have to complete a post-Los Angeles urban aid package first.

In the Senate, "optimism is dwindling as the days go by," the administration official said. "Every day the political baggage is becoming more and more cumbersome." Chances of passage there are 60-40 and "soft," the official said. A Senate staffer who works for a strong supporter of the measure put the chances at less than 50 percent.

"The singular problem is that there are not enough guys who want to move in the context of everything that's going on domestically," the administration official said.

While the administration is willing to attempt a compromise on urban aid and extension of unemployment benefits, it is resisting what the official called "extortion."

Even if the measure comes to the Senate floor before mid-June, it faces an attempt to attach a new measure to provide billions in loan guarantees to help Israel settle Soviet emigres, a move that would guarantee a Bush veto.

The administration fears that election worries are so strong that even heavy personal pressure from Mr. Bush at this point would make little difference.

"At the end of the day, personal calculations literally mean everything," the senior official said. Members are "making their basest, crassest, most realistic political calculations."

As an alternative, the Bush administration is looking for ways to provide whatever aid it can through rearranging existing aid programs. The IMF is expected to be able to cope into 1993 before current programs are seriously jeopardized.

Democrats contend that the time for a major Bush lobbying effort has long passed.

"I think he missed the boat months ago," said an aide to an influential Democrat, arguing that the president should have started educating the public last fall, thereby paving the way in Congress. Instead, the White House waited until after its inaction had drawn criticism not just from congressional aid proponents but from former President Richard M. Nixon.

In an ironic twist, it was announced yesterday that Mr. Nixon would lead a Fund for Democracy and Development mission to Russia and Ukraine to develop private sector assistance projects.

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