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Biden urges Congress to ‘immediately’ pass Ukraine aid, putting Covid funds on back burner

Democrats had hoped to move the two funding packages together.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is urging Congress to quickly pass Ukraine aid in a move that would prioritize assistance for Kyiv over new Covid relief funding for the U.S.

"I call on Congress to pass the Ukrainian Supplemental funding bill immediately, and get it to my desk in the next few days," Biden said in a statement Monday.

Biden and Democratic leaders had hoped to move a coronavirus aid package alongside the Ukraine aid, using the Ukrainian assistance as leverage to secure additional Covid funding, but Republicans balked, saying they would not approve new money to fight the pandemic without a vote on Biden’s decision to end a Trump-era border policy known as Title 42.

That left Biden and Democratic leaders little choice but to separate the two packages.

“Previously, I had recommended that Congress take overdue action on much needed funding for COVID treatments, vaccines and tests, as part of the Ukraine Supplemental bill. However, I have been informed by Congressional leaders in both parties that such an addition would slow down action on the urgently needed Ukrainian aid — a view expressed strongly by several Congressional Republicans,” Biden said in his statement.

His decision to separate the two bills should help clear the way for congressional approval of nearly $40 billion in funding for Ukraine, but it leaves in limbo a $10 billion pandemic relief bill that Biden and Democrats have said was a top priority as the U.S. tries to ensure it has enough vaccines, testing and treatments for a potential winter surge.

Biden has warned that without new funding for Ukraine, shipments of weapons and other aid would need to be halted in about 10 days.

“We cannot afford delay in this vital war effort. Hence, I am prepared to accept that these two measures move separately, so that the Ukrainian aid bill can get to my desk right away,” he said in Monday's statement. “We cannot allow our shipments of assistance to stop while we await further Congressional action.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., later indicated the House would move first on the legislation, and move quickly.

“I’m hoping to bring the bill up tomorrow on Ukraine,” she said Monday at an event in Miami.

The House is now scheduled to take up the legislation Tuesday afternoon.

Two congressional aides said the Ukraine aid package that Democrats are proposing comes to $39.8 billion, higher than the $33 billion originally requested by the White House. It includes money for weapons and food.

It’s not clear whether Republicans will sign off on the new funding level for Ukraine, but dropping the Covid relief aid is likely to help garner support.

A GOP leadership aide said Monday that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has “advocated for [the Ukraine bill] to travel separately and quickly.” Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., also said a standalone Ukraine aid package “could pass quickly” through the chamber, likely by next week.

“If a deal came together quickly it could pop, but I know right now they’re still looking at the latest version of it and take out all the non-essential pieces of it,” Thune told reporters, adding that congressional leaders are “definitely going to want to process Ukraine first” before Covid aid.

Some Democrats said they could live with voting on the Ukraine funding first.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a member of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Appropriations committees, said she was OK with breaking up the aid packages.

"Hopefully, if we're not going to do them together, we can get the Covid funding done separately," she said. "But I think it's very important for us to continue the aid to Ukraine so they can keep up this fight."

In his statement, Biden insisted that decoupling the two bills did not mean he was giving up on additional Covid relief funding.

“[A]s vital as it is to help Ukraine combat Russian aggression, it is equally vital to help Americans combat COVID. Without timely COVID funding, more Americans will die needlessly. We will lose our place in line for America to order new COVID treatments and vaccines for the fall, including next-generation vaccines under development, and be unable to maintain our supply of COVID tests,” he said.