WASHINGTON — A key Senate committee voted Wednesday to block further U.S. economic aid to Russia if Moscow goes ahead with a $250-million rocket sale to India.
The unanimous 19-0 vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee added several new conditions to President Bush's proposal for $24 billion in international assistance to the struggling former superpower.
"I am confident that the Russian leaders will recognize the wisdom of stopping this sale once they see the risk of losing their economic aid," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who offered the amendment. "This is no minor sale; this is dangerous."
The new restriction would block U.S. aid to any former Soviet republic that transfers missiles, nuclear warheads or chemical weapons technology abroad. Other new provisions adopted by the panel would block aid to any republic that violates human rights, attacks other countries or fails to observe arms control treaties.
Bush could override the prohibitions in individual cases, but he would have to defend each decision in a formal letter to Congress.
Richard L. Armitage, chief of the State Department's Russian aid effort, did not say what the Bush Administration will do about Russia's rocket deal with India, in which Moscow's state-owned space firm, Glavkosmos, is selling a long-range rocket to the Indian Space Research Organization. The State Department banned U.S. dealings with the two organizations on Monday, but since neither does business in the United States, the impact is unlikely to be large.
In a bow to Armenian-American voters, the committee also voted to prohibit aid to Azerbaijan unless that republic ends its military blockade of Armenian-held areas.
Administration officials grumbled about the amendments but accepted the senators' additions as the price of moving the aid bill, one of Bush's major foreign policy objectives, toward passage. The committee approved its amended version by a vote of 14 to 4.
The bill faces tough opposition in the House, where Republicans and Democrats alike say they don't want to vote for new foreign aid in a year when voters are concerned with the domestic economy and the plight of cities such as Los Angeles.
Bush asked Congress to pass the bill before Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin visits Washington in mid-June, but officials said they have no hope of winning a vote in the House that soon.
The bill authorizes the President to increase U.S. deposits at the International Monetary Fund by $12 billion, join a $6-billion multinational fund to stabilize the Russian ruble and launch a variety of direct programs to aid Russia and its neighbors.
Most of the Senate committee's changes added restrictions to Bush's bill, which many senators had criticized as a blank check that would have allowed the Administration unprecedented discretion.
Armitage noted that Biden's amendment would still allow the Administration to continue aid if the President certifies to Congress that it is in the national interest.
"We can live with it as long as we can straighten some of the language out," he said. "We don't want to have to stop all aid if some maverick officer ships a missile somewhere."
The amendment on aid to Azerbaijan, offered by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), was passed over the Administration's objection that it is a bad idea to single out any individual republic. Kerry charged that Azerbaijan is at fault in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory within Azerbaijan whose population is mostly Armenian.
The four votes against the aid bill came from three conservative Republicans, Sens. Jesse Helms (N.C.), Larry Pressler (S.D.) and Hank Brown (Colo.), and one liberal Democrat, Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.).
Dodd complained that the bill gives so much leeway to the Administration, it "will basically tell us (Congress) to go sit in the bleachers."