WASHINGTON -- Democratic and Republican senators exasperated with the Obama administration's response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine threatened on Wednesday to act unilaterally on new sanctions.
"What are we waiting for?" Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked twice at a hearing with senior administration officials from State, Treasury and the Defense departments about targeted sanctions that the administration said it was preparing last month.
Lawmakers ticked off a list of examples of Russia's pattern of escalating the nearly three month crisis and then pulling back, arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the U.S. and European allies look foolish. More than 400 people have died and thousands have fled their homes in Ukraine as fighting continues between government forces and pro-Russia separatists.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the committee, called the administration's sanctions policy "feckless" and described the U.S. as a "paper tiger to the world."
Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, defended the administration's policies, saying the United States is ready to impose new sanctions "very soon." She stressed that it would be more effective for the United States to work together with Europe on such steps and the U.S. continues to consult with its allies. However, she said Obama has made clear that if necessary, the U.S. would act alone.
Menendez said he didn't know how long Congress would wait before moving independently.
"We fight with one hand behind our back, maybe two," Menendez told Nuland. "I don't get it."
Corker questioned what was behind the administration's reluctance. He asked whether it was fear of economic blowback that could cost Democrats in November's midterm elections or related to Europe's concerns given its reliance on Russia for fuel supplies.