Congress races to pass $40B Ukraine aid package

Lawmakers are rallying to pass a nearly $40 billion package for Ukraine, heeding President Joe Biden’s warning that U.S. cash to help the allied country will run out in just over a week.

The House is scheduled to vote late Tuesday night on the plan, though bill text wasn’t released until around 3 p.m. that day. Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer invited Ukraine’s ambassador to speak to the chamber’s Democrats over lunch as the New York Democrat promised his chamber “will move swiftly” to clear the package for Biden’s signature.

“Time is of the essence — and we cannot afford to wait,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter to House Democrats. “With this aid package, America sends a resounding message to the world of our unwavering determination to stand with the courageous people of Ukraine until victory is won.”

Hill leaders reached a tentative deal Monday on the large assistance plan, and Democrats were still ironing out their differences Tuesday morning before releasing text that afternoon. But some congressional Republicans say even more Ukraine aid will be needed in the coming months.

“It would be a tragedy for Ukraine to have bought all this time with our help, only to lose the initiative now,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said on the floor.

The legislation is expected to easily pass both chambers. But top Democrats’ decision to forgo adding $10 billion in Covid health funding to the package — at Republicans’ insistence — has caused consternation among the majority party, since the funding for testing, therapeutics and vaccines now faces an uncertain path to final passage.

The Covid package might finally clear Congress on its own, however, after two Senate Democratic leaders said they are willing to give Republicans a vote on a controversial immigration policy that has stifled movement of the unrelated pandemic funding bill for more than a month.

Under the Ukraine aid plan, the nearly $40 billion total goes beyond Biden’s two-week-old request for $33 billion, a sum that was already expected to be transformative for both the Ukrainian military and NATO allies and amounts to more than 5 percent of the United States’ entire national security budget of $782 billion. Lawmakers opted to include even more funding for military and humanitarian programs than Biden had originally requested.

Despite the boost to Biden’s proposal, Republicans argue more cash might still be needed to adequately help Ukraine beat back the Russian invasion.

“Defeating Putin is priceless,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the Senate’s top Republican on the spending panel that funds the State Department and foreign aid programs.

“Do I think this will be the last round? No, I think we’ll be doing this again,” Graham said. “Who knows where we’re going to be two months from now, three months from now. As long as they’re willing to fight, we need to help.”

The president’s original request included billions to arm Ukraine and finance higher troop levels in Europe, as well as restock military inventories of weapons that were sent into the fight against Russia. The White House estimated its request would bolster Ukraine through the next five months of the unfolding conflict. 

Amid the last-minute jostling over final text of the emergency aid package, a bipartisan group of senators pushed for the bill to allow the United States to seize and sell the assets of Russian oligarchs as a way to pay for humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. The legislation includes $67 million in funding for the Justice Department to help pay for the costs of seizing and selling such assets, such as oligarchs’ yachts.

The Ukraine legislation also includes a $174,000 payment for Anne Garland Young, the wife of the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). The payments are tradition in the chamber for the spouses or beneficiaries of lawmakers who died while still in office.

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