Ukraine crisis adds pressure to spending talks

The U.S. Capitol is seen on July 1
Greg Nash

Pressure is ratcheting up on congressional negotiators to finalize talks for a sprawling government funding package by a looming shutdown deadline next week, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle advocate for emergency aid for Ukraine in response to Russia’s ongoing invasion.

Democratic leaders have announced plans to attach supplemental funding for humanitarian and military assistance for Ukraine to a larger spending omnibus package to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year, calling it the quickest vehicle to greenlight the billions in spending.

The push, lawmakers say, tacks even more pressure on Congress to wrap up work on government funding legislation in time for a March 11 deadline, after the cutoff date was previously pushed back several times to buy negotiators more time for spending talks.

Members say the ongoing crisis in Ukraine also adds greater urgency to update spending levels for agencies like the Department of Defense (DoD) and State Department to boost national security and bolster resources to meet future needs.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said on Thursday that he thinks there’s increased pressure to “not have the Department of Defense on a continuing resolution (CR),” especially amid the ongoing crisis.

“The money for Ukraine is not just in the supplemental. It’s also in the underlying DHS and DoD and Department of State budgets. So, to put those agencies on a continuing resolution in the middle of this crisis would be malpractice,” Murphy told The Hill.

Congress has already had to pass three CRs for fiscal year 2022 to avert a shutdown after Republican and Democratic leaders struggled for months to reach agreement on a host of issues, including parity in annual growth for defense and non-defense spending levels, top-line numbers and other legislative sticking points.

The short-term bills have allowed the government to remain funded under the previous year’s spending levels, set under the Trump administration, while appropriators sort out spending. But members are hopeful there won’t be a need for a fourth, as more lawmakers push for the U.S. to join international allies in bolstering support for Ukraine amid the Russian invasion.

“I think that people would very much like to vote for aid for Ukraine,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), the top Republican on the Senate Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, said Thursday. “Hopefully, we can work together and figure out a path forward to get it done in a timely fashion.”

Earlier this week, the White House called on Congress to approve $10 billion in humanitarian, economic and security assistance for Ukraine and nearby allies, as the eastern European nation’s death toll climbs amid Russia’s ongoing invasion.

In recent days, reports have provided a devastating glimpse of destruction wreaked in a now war-torn Ukraine, where officials have named hospitals and memorials among the areas struck by bombings since the outset of the invasion.

As part of its request, White House Office of Management and Budget acting Director Shalanda Young detailed plans to put $4.8 billion toward the DoD for U.S. troop deployments to neighboring countries and provide military equipment to Ukraine, as well as $5 billion to the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to boost security and economic assistance to Ukraine, and humanitarian aid.

Young also laid out an additional ask for $22.5 billion to support ongoing COVID-19 response efforts, in addition to prevention efforts against new variants, while calling on Congress to “act expeditiously” in addressing both requests as part of a comprehensive government funding bill before next week’s deadline.

But although the push for Ukraine aid has found unity among Democrats and Republicans, the latter ask has already ruffled feathers among GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, some of whom have balked at the request while calling for funding legislation for both matters to be delinked.

Pressed over whether he thought the COVID funding request was warranted, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on Thursday that he did not, before raising the question of “how much unspent money is there.”

“The American people need an accounting on how much is left. Let’s spend that first before we start borrowing more,” Shelby said.

Others have also pushed back on the strategy to attach Ukraine to the omnibus, particularly given the challenges lawmakers have faced in finding common ground in spending talks since last year.

“You don’t have to put the Ukraine aid in an omnibus, either,” Sen. Lisa Murkowksi (R-Ala.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Hill. “Omnibus has its own challenges. They’re just trying to get everything in one big bill.”

Her comments come as negotiators are still working to sort through remaining hurdles in bipartisan spending talks in a critical stretch to finish crafting – and hopefully pass – an omnibus package before next Friday is over.

However, Democrats have insisted the omnibus is the fastest vehicle to pass the Ukraine aid, while also doubling down on calls for additional COVID-19 funding as a necessary investment in the nation’s ongoing pandemic response.

“I’m always trusting that, left to their own devices, the appropriators – Democrats, Republicans, House and Senate – understand the urgency of meeting the needs of the American people as we keep government open,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a press conference on Thursday. “And in this case, we have a pandemic to address and the challenge that we face in Ukraine.”

As appropriators make a dash to finish their work for next week, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) expressed optimism on Thursday in Congress meeting the March 11 deadline. “I definitely want to, and expect to.”

Some appropriators have said they’ve gotten signals from top leaders that they are close to crossing the finish line in speeding talks in recent days, even as negotiators have indicated more work is to be done in thornier, partisan issues like border wall funding.

“We are getting those signals,” Boozman told The Hill on Thursday. “The problem is we’ve gotten those signals for a long time. So, we hope these are good signals.”

Tags Budget talks Chris Murphy Continuing resolution CR John Boozman Nancy Pelosi Patrick Leahy Richard Shelby Russia Shalanda Young Ukraine

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