President Joe Biden already saw one major priority sidelined by a heated immigration dispute. Now, it looks like his urgent request for Ukraine aid could get caught up in the same fight, despite bipartisan support.
Republicans scuttled attempts to pass $10 billion in Covid aid earlier this month by demanding a vote on a pandemic-era border policy. In a bid to trample GOP stonewalling, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated he wants to embroil Biden’s plea for additional Ukraine cash in that legislative battle.
Schumer has said he wants to combine new Ukraine aid with “funding to address Covid-19 and food insecurity globally.” Talks over a Covid funding bill fell apart when Republicans demanded amendment votes on Biden’s decision to end certain restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border related to the pandemic, known as Title 42. And with more Democrats opposing Biden’s decision to reverse Title 42, all three hot-button issues could soon collide.
The push for another lethal aid package comes as lawmakers and the Biden administration alike are looking to redouble U.S. support for Ukraine as the country’s war with Russia enters a new phase in the Donbas region. The president will formally request the money next week when lawmakers return to Washington.
“I support a package to address continued research and investment and therapeutics and vaccinations that we need for Covid … but I also think it’s very important to get this aid out to Ukraine as quickly as possible,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) told reporters on a conference call from the Balkans, where she traveled this week alongside Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
Murphy said he was “open to any pathway that is the fastest” to get both Ukraine aid and Covid assistance to the president’s desk. Tillis, on the other hand, said that while he supports new funding for Covid therapeutics, it shouldn’t slow down the Ukraine portion.
“If that [Covid aid] discussion is going to take a matter of weeks, we have to make a decision on Ukrainian support in a matter of hours or days,” Tillis said.
The urgency for new aid follows several lawmaker visits to the region over the two-week congressional recess. Last week, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Ukraine-born Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) were the first American officials known to have traveled to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began in February.
Biden announced an additional $800 million in military aid for Ukraine on Thursday, and in doing so revealed that he has “almost exhausted” a key fund that Congress created as part of the last Ukraine package. He said he would be asking Congress for additional funding next week “in order to sustain Ukraine for the duration of this fight” and “keep weapons and ammunition flowing without interruption.”
The president said he wants Congress to move “quickly” on the request, but it could get slowed down if lawmakers try to tack on other White House priorities. And amid the criticism over Title 42, Democrats have discussed potentially crafting a supplemental appropriations bill for the border.
Covid aid was put on hold before the current congressional recess after Republicans sought to halt Biden’s decision to scrap Title 42. Since then, pressure on Biden has only grown — including from within his own party. Granting amendment votes on Title 42 would be tricky for Democratic Senate leaders, since there’s a possibility enough Democrats would side with Republicans.
Still, Congress’ top priority remains providing additional military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine and ensuring that the aid is delivered promptly, with as few bureaucratic hurdles as possible. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday she plans to take up aid “as soon as we can next week,” though her spokesperson, Drew Hammill, later clarified that there is “no specific timeline for a floor vote at this time.”
Before the recess, the Senate unanimously approved a bill to reestablish a World War II-era program known as Lend-Lease, which would allow the U.S. to more efficiently send weapons and other critical supplies to Ukraine with the promise of repayment at a later date.
House leaders are in discussions about putting that legislation on the floor next week, and sending it to Biden’s desk. It would be put up for a vote under a procedure that requires support from two-thirds of the chamber for passage.
Lawmakers are also exploring additional avenues for humanitarian assistance to help rebuild Ukrainian cities and towns pummeled by Russian shelling. And they’re eyeing Biden’s forthcoming request for military assistance as a possible catch-all vehicle for related measures.
For example, Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) recently introduced a bill that would allow the Biden administration to use seized Russian assets to fund reconstruction efforts in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has vowed that everything will be rebuilt, and has used the word “reparations” in demanding that Russia foot the bill.
The Justice Department recently launched an effort, known as Task Force KleptoCapture, to go after Russian oligarchs’ luxury assets. But it requires an act of Congress to transfer title of those funds and direct them toward rebuilding Ukraine’s infrastructure. (A similar but not identical bill introduced in the House has raised alarm among civil-liberties advocates.)
In an interview, Bennet said his proposal is “just common sense.”
“Zelenskyy has called [Vladimir] Putin a butcher, and I think that’s the right way to talk about what’s going on here,” Bennet said. “The least we can do is make sure the proceeds from the billionaires that have enabled Putin … go to help the Ukrainians resettle and do the reconstruction and recovery work that they’re going to have to do once this war is over.”
Lawmakers from both parties have acknowledged that a long-term commitment to Ukraine’s security and sovereignty is necessary in order to prevent the conflict from spilling into other eastern European nations, including NATO member-countries.
Before the two-week recess, the House and Senate near-unanimously approved legislation banning Russian energy imports and revoking normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus. And in March, lawmakers negotiated a $14 billion military and economic aid package for Ukraine as part of a broader government spending bill. It was Congress’ largest commitment to Ukraine to date.
One senator close to Biden even raised the idea of U.S. troop involvement in the war — something the president has ruled out.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) recently said Congress and the White House should “come to a common position about when we are willing to go the next step and to send not just arms but troops to the aid in defense of Ukraine.” He added that “if the answer is never, then we are inviting another level of escalation in brutality by Putin.”
However, he walked back those statements in a tweet Monday, saying he was calling for the “global community” to continue to fight Putin and that he was “not calling for U.S. troops to go into the war in Ukraine.”
Most lawmakers in both parties continue to oppose measures that would put American and Russian troops in combat, including the imposition of a no-fly zone, even as they insist that no option should be off the table.
Marianne LeVine, Burgess Everett and Alexander Ward contributed to this report.