In response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, House Republicans want to slash funding for the Open World Leadership Center, an international exchange program established nearly 15 years ago to build relationships with post-Soviet countries.
For fiscal 2015, the $6-million Library of Congress program would be reduced by 43 percent -- representing the portion of participants Russia normally sends as delegates to the United States.
House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla., called the move "a sign of support for Ukraine," and emphasized that the decision was made in consultation with Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., during the full committee markup on April 9. "It's important to stress that the Open World program does not just focus on Russia," Cole said during the markup. Ukraine has the next largest group of participants in the program, which has brought more than 19,000 current and future leaders from Eurasia to the United States for firsthand exposure to Congress and American government. "Therefore, we encourage the center to do more in Ukraine and with the other participating countries in the surrounding region," he added.
Fellow GOP appropriators Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia objected, along with a handful of Democrats.
Fortenberry said Ukraine and four other previously Soviet countries -- Georgia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania and Moldova -- that participate in the exchange stood with the United States in voting for the United Nations to condemn Russia's actions in Crimea.
"I understand the need to react to the Russians," he said, adding: "The Russians have spit in the face of the responsible community of nations. And so I think the discussion here is important in terms of shifting funds. I would also like to caution us, however, in terms of totally committing the potential of helping young Russian citizens who are alternative voices and who may be the exact people that we need to help move forward, in the future, towards better international stability."
Democrats argued along the same lines, saying the program would help build personal relationships among members of Congress and emerging leaders.
"This is an important program, and by cutting it we help [Russia President Vladimir Putin], we don't hurt him," said Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va. "It brings potential leaders over here to the United States to learn the rule of law, the last thing Putin wants them understanding," he added.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, an accomplished Russian scholar who has accompanied 10 congressional delegations on visits to the region, helped found the center and formerly served as chairman of its Board of Trustees.
Wolf agreed with the need to restore funding and reflected on one of those trips to Russia. He called Billington "probably the most respected American in Russia."
Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., asked Republicans to consider shifting funds to support a larger presence in Ukraine and surrounding nations, and fellow Democrats Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and David E. Price of North Carolina suggested the issue should be revisited as the legislative branch bill moves forward.
The House is expected to consider the bill when it returns from recess.