President Joe Biden is shifting strategy with additional aid for Ukraine and more COVID-19 funding languishing for weeks: Pass them separately and prioritize emergency funds to counter the Russian invasion in order to avoid further delays.
The move is almost certain to ensure that tens of billions of dollars in new military, economic and humanitarian aid for Ukraine will pass in the near future. Like the last round of aid approved in March, there’s overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress for additional help for Ukraine as it enters the third month of Russia’s invasion. Biden urged swift passage, warning that he’s already “nearly exhausted” the previous funding of nearly $14 billion.
Late last month, Biden requested another $33 billion, and after conversations with leadership, he said in a statement he expects Congress will “likely to pass it in substantially the form I proposed.”
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The fate, however, of additional funding to restore the federal government’s coronavirus testing, vaccine and therapeutics capacity is much more unpredictable and could face significant roadblocks once again from Republicans and perhaps even some Democrats. As he proposed new Ukrainian aid, Biden reiterated his call for $22.5 billion in pandemic relief, though senators instead struck a much more slimmed down $10 billion bipartisan deal last month.
“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 a Monday statement. “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.”
“However let me be clear: as vital as it is to help Ukraine combat Russian aggression, it is equally vital to help Americans combat COVID,” he added. “So I call on Congress to pass the Ukrainian Supplemental funding bill immediately, and get it to my desk in the next few days. And then, I urge Congress to move promptly on the COVID funding bill.”
Coronavirus funding, specifically, has been tied up in Congress for weeks. The Senate failed to advance the $10 billion in funding in early April after Republicans blocked the procedural vote. As a part of the bill, they wanted an amendment vote on delaying the end of Title 42, the public health order implemented by the Trump administration in 2020 allowing the expulsion of migrants who cross the border because of pandemic concerns.
Since Biden’s announcement that he’d wind down Title 42 on May 23, Republicans and a growing number of Democrats – moderates and ones facing tough reelection races in November – have been seeking a delay and want a detailed plan from the administration if there’s an influx of migrants at the border once it lifts. The plan, however, could be put on hold after a federal judge in Louisiana issued a temporary restraining order against reversing Title 42 before the May deadline.
Democrats were initially angling to pair the Ukraine and COVID-19 funding to ensure the latter passed and dare Republicans to vote against financial help for the eastern European country. Leadership and Biden saw that as the best chance to get pandemic aid through.
But now that the president wants to unlink them and pass Ukraine aid first, Democrats will now need to confront more political hurdles. If Republicans keep up their demands for a vote on Title 42 as part of any coronavirus funding, Democrats will need to decide whether to budge.
With a split 50-50 Senate, both aid packages will need to secure some Republican support in order to reach the 60-vote threshold to avoid the threat of a filibuster. While it seems very likely there will be more than 10 GOP votes for the Ukraine aid, the same isn’t certain for the other.