Responding to President Clinton's call to help Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, the U.S. Senate approved a $12.5-billion foreign aid bill Thursday that includes $2.5 billion in economic assistance for Russia and other former Soviet states.
Acting with uncommon speed, the Senate voted 88 to 10 to approve the 1994 foreign operations appropriations bill only one day after Clinton had urged its swift passage as a tangible sign of American support for the beleaguered Russian president.
Although the Senate imposed some conditions under which part of the aid might have to be withheld, only a handful of conservative Republicans took issue with what Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) said was the urgent need to show Yeltsin and his supporters that "we are in their corner" in the political struggle now unfolding between reformers and hard-liners in Moscow.
It is a measure of "the Senate's support for the President's decision to help Yeltsin . . . that we got this through in what must be record time" for a foreign aid bill, added Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that drafted the legislation.
The Senate package--which earmarks most of the Russian aid money for private sector development, pro-democracy programs and humanitarian assistance--must now be reconciled with a similar package approved earlier by the House. The House package, while identical in size, contains no earmarks and would allow Clinton to disburse the money to Russia in any manner he chooses.
That is just one of some 125 differences between the Senate and House-passed foreign aid bills, which must be resolved in a conference convening next Monday. Mostly technical, the differences are expected to be reconciled in time to send the package to Clinton's desk by the month's end, Leahy said.
Leahy said the latest crisis in Moscow--where Yeltsin moved to dissolve Parliament and it voted to impeach him--had increased Congress' resolve to back Clinton in his support of the Russian leader. "I sensed that support (for the aid package) was growing, but I am still surprised that there wasn't more debate," he added.
He credited intensive lobbying by Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other officials for that. But Republicans also noted that a broad bipartisan consensus had already existed on what one GOP leadership aide described as "the need to help Yeltsin at almost any cost."
Administration officials on Thursday continued to praise Yeltsin and said it appeared he was gaining the upper hand over his hard-line opponents.
Appearing before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on refugee policy, Christopher said the Administration was encouraged by Yeltsin's announcement that he will move up the date for Russia's next presidential elections. It "confirms that he has a deep belief in democracy," Christopher said.
Another senior official said the latest reports from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow also had brought "more good news" about support for Yeltsin from the Russian armed forces and central government ministries. But other officials added they still were concerned about Russia's hard-line-dominated regional parliaments, two of which voted to denounce Yeltsin's move.
More support for Yeltsin came Thursday from Michel Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund who told reporters that another $1.5 billion in IMF funds could be released to Russia by the year's end. Russia has already received $1.5 billion from the IMF, but a second $1.5-billion payment originally due to have been made this month was withheld because of Yeltsin's failure to institute promised economic reforms.
Camdessus said negotiations are under way with Russia to get the reforms "back on track" and that he is optimistic about the chances of releasing the second payment in the coming months.
Appropriators had to make deep cuts in nearly every other foreign aid program to make room for the Russian aid, while still cutting the overall level of foreign assistance by $1.5 billion from last year. The only levels that remained unchanged were those for Israel and Egypt, which, like last year, will receive $3 billion and $2.1 billion, respectively.
Another $25 million was provided for aid to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Jericho and a new provision was inserted to allow Clinton to waive existing restrictions on American contributions to organizations that support the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Leahy said that provision, in turn, would allow the United States to work through the international donors' conference that Christopher is organizing to help the Gaza Strip in the wake of the historic peace accord signed by Israel and the PLO earlier this month.
But attention was so focused on events in Moscow that even the extraordinary prospect of U.S. aid to the PLO was overshadowed.
Times staff writers Doyle McManus and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.