Congress Is Balky on Aid to Former Soviets

AFTER helping round up support abroad for a multibillion-dollar aid package to the former Soviet Union, the Bush administration now faces a more formidable task: getting Congress to approve the United States' share.

Given a coincidence of altruism and self-interest, few US lawmakers oppose the idea of lending a helping hand to underwrite democracy and free-market reforms in the fledgling former communist nations.

But with millions at home unemployed and feeling neglected by Washington - in an election year, at that - a vote to send billions abroad will carry more than the usual risks.

"With the US in a recession of its own, it's not going to be politically popular to help the Commonwealth [of Independent States]," acknowledges Rep. Tony Hall (D) of Ohio, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger.

"But Congress will have to look beyond the short term. The cold war will not be won until the independent republics are economically and socially stable," he says.

Legislation introduced April 1 calls for a US contribution to a $24 billion fund pledged by the 11 leading industrialized democracies to help the commonwealth nations restructure their economies and stabilize their currencies.

The Freedom Support Act also includes humanitarian aid and loan guarantees and pledges the $12 billion US share of a $60 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) capital replenishment, some of which would be spent on projects in the former Soviet Union.

Administration sources say the legislation is principally needed to strengthen shaky first steps toward free-market reforms and to underwrite stability in a region beset by problems that threaten political and economic crisis.

"This is a once-in-a-century opportunity," comments a senior Bush administration official, who asked not to be named. "Either the United States is going to lead or it isn't going to lead."

"We really believe we're being called on once again to try to win a peace," adds the official, alluding to America's role in retrieving Western Europe from economic chaos after World War II.

But some members of Congress are wary. They say Russia's economy is in such disarray that financial aid to the former Soviet Union now would be wasted.

More compelling for many lawmakers is the deep-seated public opposition to spending abroad while 9 million Americans are out of work and more than half of them receive no employment benefits.

Determined that charity should begin at home, a group of nearly 100 House members have banded together to hold the aid package hostage to a jobs bill and the extension of unemployment benefits.

"We call upon you to rebuild our own economic prosperity with the same determination you have shown toward the former Soviet republics," the lawmakers say in a letter to Mr. Bush which was scheduled for delivery to the White House yesterday.

"Once we have approved these important bills - and put our own economy on the road to recovery - then we can consider your plan to help the former Soviet republics."

In recent testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State James Baker III said the proposed bill would have direct national-security implications because it would help pay for demilitarization, defense conversion, and the withdrawal of former Soviet military forces still deployed in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere.

The bill also has indirect security implications, Mr. Baker told the panel that "democrats in the Kremlin can assure our security in a way that nuclear missiles never could."

US Treasury Undersecretary David Mulford acknowledged last week that a partial reversal of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's ambitious economic reforms was a "cause for concern" to the administration.

Mr. Yeltsin is under intense pressure from hard-liners to make further concessions that would swell Russia's staggering debt and retard the shift to a private economy.

But US officials insist that the reforms, which have already led to lower budget deficits in Russia, have a good chance of succeeding - but only with outside financial help.

Administration officials are pressing for passage of the aid package by June 15, the day Yeltsin begins a state visit to the US. Congressional sources say that timetable may be optimistic.

The senior official says the administration has received private assurances from House and Senate leaders that "we're going to do what's right for the country on this question and this issue this year, notwithstanding the fact that it's an election year."

The legislation is expected to pass, but not before anxious lawmakers demonstrate the priority they attach to meeting pressing domestic needs.

"There may be a lot of guys who are running for reelection and who are going to want the 30-second sound bite and say we ought to spend this money on infrastructure here in the United States and particularly in 'my' district," the administration official says. "But if we can continue to point out what's really involved here, we have some chance of getting this bill passed."

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