WASHINGTON — The deadly war in Ukraine, worsening by the day, has increased the urgency for lawmakers to strike a bipartisan deal on a massive government funding package that almost certainly would include emergency aid for the Eastern European country.
Congress faces a fast-approaching deadline — the government will shut down next week without any action — and related funding issues are quickly piling up.
The White House requested Thursday that $10 billion in emergency defense and humanitarian aid for the Ukraine conflict be linked to the larger omnibus spending bill, up from $6.4 billion in aid just a few days ago. President Joe Biden also wants another $22.4 billion in coronavirus aid to develop new testing, therapeutics and vaccines to fight future variants of the virus.
Both Democratic and Republican appropriators said Thursday that it was imperative to pass a government funding package, with emergency money for Ukraine, before the March 11 deadline.
To kick the can down the road and pass another short-term stopgap measure, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, would be a “dereliction of duty,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., who is also on the Appropriations Committee.
Passing an omnibus package that funds federal agencies through September, he said, would give the Defense Department more certainty and better ability to respond to the crisis in Ukraine and shore up defenses at home.
“I think we need to pass the omnibus for the Defense Department, because they’re operating right now, and they need the certainty that the omnibus will give them in terms of funding levels,” Reed said. “And we have to basically deal with all the unexpected expenses that are happening in Ukraine.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a former White House budget director who is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he has personally heard from U.S. military commanders that “another CR will really hurt our readiness.”
"Now, in particular, we want to do everything we can do to enhance our readiness so that we can help protect not just Ukraine but also our Eastern European allies who are under such pressure,” Portman said. “So, yeah, we need to pass the omnibus.”
The $10 billion package would pay for humanitarian, security and economic assistance for Ukraine and central European allies “due to Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked invasion,” Shalanda Young, the acting White House budget director, wrote in a letter Thursday to congressional leaders.
“Given the rapidly evolving situation in Ukraine,” she wrote, “I anticipate that additional needs may arise over time.”
Shortly before the Senate wrapped up on Thursday, however, a senior GOP aide speculated that a stopgap bill may be necessary to prevent a shutdown next week.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, said this weekend would be “crucial” in determining whether another continuing resolution is needed.
“We can’t afford to stall this weekend. If we do, we’re headed for a CR,” Shelby told reporters.
A number of Republicans, from Portman to Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, said they are open to the $10 billion request for Ukraine but balked at the White House’s $22 billion request for more Covid funds when cases connected to the omicron variant are plummeting and the administration is still trying to spend other relief money passed by Congress.
“Why?” Lummis asked, noting that “billions” of Covid relief dollars from Biden’s American Rescue Plan have been authorized but not spent. “That’s an absolute nonstarter.”
Portman said, “I’d like to see an accounting of where those billions of dollars are.”
Addressing reporters Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that the White House’s new Covid request was “absolutely necessary” and that more than $22 billion may be needed for therapies, including antiviral pills.
“I would hope that they would see the wisdom of the science of what we need to do in terms of Covid,” Pelosi said, “because the last thing we need is more transmission.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said that most of the add-ons have been resolved and that “the bar is very high for new legislative language” to be tacked on. He said he hopes for a final agreement by Friday so lawmakers can spend the weekend writing the bill.
Murphy, a Senate appropriator, said the $22.5 billion in Covid funds was important.
“What we’re trying to do with this relief money is be ready for the next variant,” he said. “The money we’ve appropriated in the past was dedicated to deal with the existing emergency.”
And some key Republicans signaled that they were open to backing Biden's Covid request — so long as some of the spending was offset by reprogramming past funding.
“I am ready to spend more money on Covid, because I think the need is there,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, an appropriator who is the top Republican on the Budget Committee. “We’ve spent a lot of money. Let’s reprogram some of it. It doesn’t have to be dollar for dollar. But if we could reprogram some money and reduce the impact of $22 billion, I think we’re at the ballgame."
“Multiple crises are hitting at the same time,” he added. “I don’t think Covid is behind us. I believe that the Ukrainians are fighting like tigers, but time is not on their side.”