Congress races clock on Ukraine aid amid invasion
Congress is moving quickly to authorize new assistance for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion even as lawmakers wrestle with what, if any, sanctions legislation is needed.
Lawmakers are mulling the administration’s request for $6.4 billion in military and humanitarian aid to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began while lawmakers were out of town last week.
They’re under pressure to move quickly. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is publicly urging the United States and other allies to provide additional assistance as the country faces a significantly larger Russian military, raising questions about how long Ukraine can hold out despite early headaches for Moscow.
“There’s a lot to do,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “We better be there as needed.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that Congress “cannot afford to move at the speed of bureaucracy.”
“Congress must use its oversight tools to ensure we are providing Ukraine the weapons it needs as quickly as possible. The same goes for helping shore up our NATO allies’ defenses along the eastern flank,” McConnell said.
The administration has requested $2.9 billion for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development for humanitarian assistance as well as security assistance to Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states and allies on NATO’s eastern flank, according to a Biden administration official.
The Biden administration is also asking Congress for $3.5 billion in additional funding for the Pentagon, according to the official.
Congress is eyeing adding the new spending into a government funding bill that needs to pass by March 11, when the current budget runs out, according to a congressional aide.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) pledged on Monday that the Senate would work “in lockstep” with the administration on a “robust assistance package for Ukraine.”
“The administration has asked for a $6.4 billion package of humanitarian aid, of economic aid and of the kind of military aid that will help the Ukrainians defend themselves. We intend to work on a bipartisan basis to include it in the upcoming omnibus bill,” Schumer said.
Key lawmakers have put the amount of money that Congress could ultimately greenlight higher than the administration’s request.
“I am confident that we will need billions of dollars to support the likely millions of refugees that will flood into Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told reporters.
Coons added that he thought a package would be at least $10 billion though he cautioned the figure was an “initial guess.” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) also floated that Ukraine-related aid could be closer to $10 billion.
What Congress’s response could include beyond the aid package is less clear.
A key group of lawmakers were negotiating a sweeping sanctions package for weeks before the invasion, but they were unable to get a deal amid disagreements about what to do about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would carry gas from Russia to Germany, as well as secondary sanctions on Russia’s banks, which could have broader impacts across Europe.
The Biden administration has rolled out several rounds of sanctions in conjunction with European allies, including sanctioning Russian banks, the company behind Nord Stream 2 and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Republicans are pushing for the administration to go broader, including targeting Russia’s energy sector.
“The one thing that we’re not doing that we can do is declare war of Putin’s oil and gas industry,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations state and foreign operations subcommittee.
Sen. Pat Toomey (Pa.), the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, urged the administration to expand its sanctions, even if it meant acting without Europe.
“It’s a start, but too many Russian banks are not effectively sanctioned. Secondary sanctions would force the world to decide between doing business with Russia or the U.S. by blocking from our economy any foreign bank that chooses to continue doing business with Russia,” Toomey said in a series of tweets.
He added that the administration “can no longer wait on reaching a consensus with the EU before taking swift and severe action. America must step up and lead before Russian aggression escalates even further.”
In addition to urging the Biden administration to use sanctions “aggressively,” McConnell also urged President Biden to use his next budget request to include at least a 5 percent increase in defense spending above inflation.
Democrats have praised Biden’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, while pointing to other areas beyond sanctions and aid that could be a path forward.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during a Washington Post Live interview plugged his bill that would require cyberattacks against critical infrastructure to be reported to the government.
Durbin, during a floor speech, also said he would be sending Biden a letter, backed by a bipartisan group of senators, asking him to grant temporary protected status to Ukrainians currently in the United States on visas.
“That to me is a way to give them some piece of mind,” Durbin said. “We certainly wouldn’t want them to return to that war scene that we’ve seen over and over broadcast on television.”
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