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White House’s $33B Ukraine aid bid already tangled up in Congress

President Joe Biden’s behemoth request for urgent aid to Ukraine finally reached Capitol Hill on Thursday. It’s already mired in legislative quicksand.

The president’s $33 billion ask, which includes more than $20 billion for military assistance, is expected to win widespread bipartisan support. But significant obstacles to getting the aid package to Biden’s desk post-haste have already cropped up.

Biden’s latest Ukraine request comes as Republicans are shrugging off Democrats’ efforts to combine the new Ukraine assistance with a cross-aisle agreement on Covid relief funding. And as part of the virus funding fight, GOP senators are threatening to force difficult votes on the Biden administration’s divisive decision to end pandemic-era curbs on immigration at the southern border, pressing an issue that Democrats are lamenting that the White House has mishandled.

In his letter to Congress, Biden specifically asked lawmakers to attach pandemic money: “To avoid needless deaths in the United States and around the world, I urge the Congress to include this much needed, life-saving Covid funding as part of this supplemental funding request.”

The resulting jousting on the Hill could end up delaying urgently needed help for Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s war-ravaged nation. In the meantime, Biden administration officials are warning that they will soon run out of money necessary to help Ukraine repel Russia’s brutal assault.

“We have plenty of opportunities to take high-priority items like Covid and the situation in Ukraine and make it the real floor priority,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, blaming Republicans for jamming up the chamber with votes on nominations. “I don’t want to slow down the process when it comes to either one of those.”

Senior Democrats insist they will not allow the aid to be delayed. Still, several Senate Democrats said they expect Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to move to pair the Ukraine and Covid funding, noting that both have bipartisan buy-in. And that step is likely to grind things to a halt, given the GOP insistence on only proceeding with more pandemic cash if they get a vote to showcase cross-aisle discontent with the Biden administration’s border policy. (Schumer declined to comment on his plans Wednesday.)

“[Schumer] thinks he can leverage support for Ukraine to get Covid supplemental funding. But I’m just saying, as a practical matter, I don’t think that’s a good move for him, because I think that our members are very much interested in having those votes separately,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a brief interview.

“And if he tries to link them, it probably dooms both,” Thune added, noting that many Republicans don’t support additional Covid funding.

Across the Capitol, House Democratic leaders are concerned that Schumer’s plans to pair the two would slow down the delivery of the Ukraine aid. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said it was a “real consideration.”

“If we find we don’t have an agreement, we want to get the Ukrainian assistance ASAP. Yesterday would not have been soon enough,” Hoyer said on Wednesday. “I don’t want to do anything to delay. Having said that, I don’t want to delay either getting resources to manufacturers so they will produce the kinds of goods that are needed, particularly vaccines but other items as well, for the health of the American people.”

GOP senators derailed a vote on new virus aid earlier this month when they demanded votes on amendments related to the migration-limiting policy that the administration planned to reverse, known as Title 42. While a federal judge has since indicated a block on that reversal is coming, politically vulnerable and centrist Democrats have since raised similar concerns about the matter.

That leaves Democratic leaders caught in a bind, acknowledging that they’ll have to give Republicans a vote on Title 42 if the GOP follows through on its vow to block any pairing of Ukraine aid and Covid funding.

“Considering them together makes good sense. And I’d really regret that my Republican colleagues would try to mire them down with extraneous and irrelevant immigration issues,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.

In the near term, many Democrats appear willing to dare Republicans to vote down a bill that includes the much-needed Ukraine military assistance. When asked about GOP threats to torpedo a Ukraine-Covid bill without immigration amendments, Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) quipped: “Republicans can vote against Ukraine.”

The White House views both the Ukraine and Covid measures as top priorities but is under pressure from Democrats who are uneasy about the administration’s plan to scrap Title 42. Administration officials have tried to assuage wobbly Democrats, but there’s real fear in the party that an amendment to keep the migration restrictions in place will win enough votes from the president’s side to go through.

And one senior administration official opened the door Thursday to splitting off Covid aid from the Ukraine package if necessary, hedging on Biden’s direct request for a marriage of the two.

“Whether it’s this vehicle or another, it just has to pass,” the official, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, said of the Covid relief bill. “I think they look stupid for not passing it when it’s still the No. 1 concern and impact on living.”

And even though some Republicans have indicated they would support legislation that includes new Ukraine money, funding for Covid vaccines and therapeutics and a provision to keep Title 42 in place, that plan’s fate is uncertain in the House. There, the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Hispanic Caucus are signaling members would oppose a package that includes GOP language to enshrine the border curbs.

Democrats’ decision on how to tee up various priorities will need to factor in the lower chamber’s tricky math. Together, those two groups represent more than 100 House Democrats. While it’s still unclear how many Progressive and Hispanic Caucus members would be willing to block a bill over immigration if one came to the floor, it could complicate party leaders’ plans to merge the Ukraine and pandemic relief.

House Democratic leaders have privately acknowledged to their members that more Covid aid would likely need to be attached to another must-pass bill in order to get it through the Senate, though there’s been no specific push yet to combine them. The House won’t address either issue until at least May 10, when lawmakers return after a weeklong recess.

In the midst of that uncertainty, Pentagon officials are warning that Biden has almost exhausted a key supply of money that provides weapons to Ukraine. As part of its new aid request, the White House also sought an additional $5 billion worth of power to quickly transfer that equipment to Ukraine from U.S. inventories, known as drawdown authority.

Lawmakers provided $3 billion in drawdown authority in March, but lawmakers were warned Wednesday that the fund could be depleted as soon as this week.

The latest White House ask comes after Congress allocated nearly $14 billion last month in emergency funding for Ukraine. In addition, Congress is continuing to approve legislation aimed at punishing Russia for what U.S. officials and lawmakers have described as war crimes in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the House passed a bill allowing the Biden administration to use Russian assets seized by the Justice Department to fund reconstruction efforts in Ukraine. The chamber is further slated on Thursday to pass separate legislation that would resurrect World War II-era authorities for the president vis-a-vis the war in Ukraine, a measure known as Lend-Lease.

That bill, which cleared the Senate unanimously earlier this month, allows the Pentagon to more quickly and efficiently shuttle weapons, equipment and other critical supplies to Ukraine.

Connor O’Brien, Alex Ward and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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