White House’s Ukraine aid bid heads straight for Hill morass

By | April 28, 2022

President Joe Biden’s latest request for military aid to Ukraine is set to reach Congress as early as Thursday — and promptly get mired in legislative quicksand.

Top Republicans are shrugging off Democrats’ efforts to combine the new Ukraine assistance with a bipartisan agreement on Covid relief funding. GOP senators are threatening to force difficult votes on the Biden administration’s divisive decision to end pandemic-era curbs on immigration at the southern border, pressing an issue that Democrats are already lamenting that the White House has mishandled.

The resulting jousting on the Hill could end up delaying urgently needed help for the war-ravaged nation, despite overwhelming bipartisan support for additional aid to fend off Russia’s brutal assault. And it comes as Biden administration officials are warning that they will soon run out of funding necessary to help Ukraine repel the Russian offensive.

“We have plenty of opportunities to take high-priority items like Covid and the situation in Ukraine and make it the real floor priority,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, blaming Republicans for jamming up the chamber with votes on nominations. “I don’t want to slow down the process when it comes to either one of those.”

Senior Democrats insist they will not allow the aid to be delayed. Still, several Senate Democrats said they expect Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to move to pair the Ukraine and Covid funding, noting that both efforts have bipartisan buy-in. And that step is likely to grind all of it to a halt, given the GOP insistence on only proceeding with more Covid cash if they get a vote to showcase cross-aisle discontent with the Biden administration’s border policy. (Schumer declined to comment on his specific plans Wednesday.)

“[Schumer] thinks he can leverage support for Ukraine to get Covid supplemental funding. But I’m just saying, as a practical matter, I don’t think that’s a good move for him, because I think that our members are very much interested in having those votes separately,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a brief interview.

“And if he tries to link them, it probably dooms both,” Thune added, noting that many Republicans don’t support additional Covid relief funding.

On the other side of the Capitol, House Democratic leaders are concerned that Schumer’s plans to pair the two would slow down the delivery of the Ukraine aid. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said it was a “real consideration.”

“If we find we don’t have an agreement, we want to get the Ukrainian assistance ASAP. Yesterday would not have been soon enough,” Hoyer said on Wednesday. “I don’t want to do anything to delay. Having said that, I don’t want to delay either getting resources to manufacturers so they will produce the kinds of goods that are needed, particularly vaccines but other items as well, for the health of the American people.”

GOP senators derailed a vote on new virus aid earlier this month when they demanded votes on amendments related to the migration-limiting policy that the administration planned to reverse, known as Title 42. While a federal judge has since indicated a block on that reversal is coming, politically vulnerable and moderate Democrats have since expressed similar concerns about the White House’s plans.

In the meantime, Democratic leaders are caught in a bind, acknowledging that they’ll have to give Republicans a vote on Title 42 if the GOP follows through on its vow to block any pairing of Ukraine aid and Covid funding.

“Considering them together makes good sense. And I’d really regret that my Republican colleagues would try to mire them down with extraneous and irrelevant immigration issues,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. “There’s bipartisan support for both. If they want to play political games with either Ukraine or Covid, that’s a really unfortunate decision.”

In the near term, many Democrats appear willing to dare Republicans to vote down a bill that includes the much-needed Ukraine military assistance. When asked about GOP threats to torpedo a Ukraine-Covid bill without immigration amendments, Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) quipped: “Republicans can vote against Ukraine.”

The White House, which is expected to unveil its Ukraine aid request as early as Thursday, views both packages as top priorities but is under increasing pressure, both privately and publicly, from Democrats who are uneasy about the administration’s plan to scrap Title 42. Biden administration officials have been trying to assuage wobbly Democrats, but there’s real fear in the party that an amendment to keep the migration restrictions in place will win enough votes from the president’s side to pass.

And even though some Republicans have indicated they would support legislation that includes new Ukraine money, funding for Covid vaccines and therapeutics and a provision to keep Title 42 in place, that plan’s fate is uncertain in the House. There, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Hispanic Caucus are signaling members would oppose a package that includes GOP language to enshrine the border curbs.

Democrats’ decision on how to tee up their various priorities will need to factor in the increasingly tricky math in the lower chamber. Together, those two groups represent more than 100 House Democrats. While it’s still unclear exactly how many Progressive and Hispanic Caucus members would be willing to block a bill over immigration if it actually came to the floor, it could seriously complicate party leaders’ plans to merge the Ukraine and pandemic relief.

House Democratic leaders have privately acknowledged to members that more Covid aid would likely need to be attached to another must-pass bill in order to get it through the Senate, though there’s been no specific push to combine them. The House won’t address either issue until at least May 10, when lawmakers return after a week-long recess for Ramadan.

In the midst of that uncertainty, Pentagon officials are warning that Biden has almost exhausted a key supply of money that provides weapons to Ukraine. As part of its new aid request, the White House is expected to seek even more power to quickly transfer those weapons and equipment to Ukraine from U.S. inventories, known as drawdown authority, after shipping billions of dollars worth of supplies since Russia’s invasion.

Lawmakers provided $3 billion in drawdown authority to ship weapons to Ukraine as part of a government funding deal struck in March. The Pentagon’s top budget official, Mike McCord, warned lawmakers on Wednesday that the fund could be depleted as soon as this week.

The latest White House request comes after Congress allocated nearly $14 billion last month in emergency funding for Ukraine — including humanitarian aid as well as money for the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops to Europe and to replenish military stocks of weapons and equipment sent to Kyiv. The new request is likely to include economic aid, too.

In addition, Congress is continuing to approve legislation aimed at supporting Ukraine and punishing Russia for what U.S. officials and lawmakers have described as war crimes in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the House passed a bill allowing the Biden administration to use Russian assets seized by the Justice Department to fund reconstruction efforts in Ukrainian towns and cities that have been destroyed by Russian shelling. A similar Senate bill has been introduced.

The House is further slated on Thursday to pass separate legislation that would resurrect World War II-era authorities for the president vis-a-vis the war in Ukraine, a measure known as Lend-Lease. The bill, which cleared the Senate unanimously earlier this month, allows the Pentagon to more quickly and efficiently shuttle weapons, equipment and other critical supplies to Ukraine.

Connor O’Brien and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.