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Biden administration requests $32.5 billion in Ukraine aid and coronavirus funds as spending talks continue

Lawmakers must reach an agreement by March 11, though disagreements remain, including GOP objections to new pandemic-related spending

President Biden delivers his State of the Union address on March 1. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The Biden administration has asked Congress to approve $32.5 billion to bolster Ukraine against Russian aggression and shore up the United States in the battle against the coronavirus, though early schisms emerged Thursday after Republicans repeated their objections to another round of pandemic aid.

The official request arrived as Democrats and Republicans continued to tussle over a broader aid package that many lawmakers hope to append to a still-forming deal to fund the government. Absent imminent action, critical federal agencies and programs are set to run out of money after March 11, imperiling Washington’s ability to respond to both crises in full.

To aid Ukraine, the Biden administration called on lawmakers to approve $10 billion, hoping to address the emerging humanitarian crisis in the country in the face of a worsening Russian onslaught. The proposal also included assistance to bolster Ukraine’s defenses, protect its electrical grid from disruption, and further equip other European allies, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the plans.

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For the pandemic, meanwhile, the Biden administration requested about $22.5 billion from Congress to replenish key public health programs as a safeguard against future variants of the coronavirus, the people said. Top White House officials have maintained in recent days that they have enough funding to combat the waning omicron surge. But they have stressed that significant money has been spent or committed to specific purposes, warranting new investment in testing, therapeutics and vaccines to protect against the possibility of a new wave.

The fate of the two spending requests rests in the hands of Congress, where lawmakers have raced in recent days to cobble together a widely sought — and repeatedly delayed — long-term deal to fund the government. Talks have progressed, but disagreements remain, including over the size and scope of the emergency aid that might be attached to the deal, known in congressional parlance as an omnibus.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced a “snag” in talks over Ukraine assistance, attacking Democrats for trying to source the money from sums they already planned to apportion for the Pentagon. A day later, dozens of Republicans questioned whether additional coronavirus aid is necessary, arguing that the Biden administration has not fully accounted for existing spending, including the $1.9 trillion package adopted last year.

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The Biden administration sought to assuage those concerns in the request it is transmitting to Congress. The Ukraine money would be new, emergency aid, not repurposed dollars meant for the Defense Department. And the funds set aside for the coronavirus reflect immediate needs, particularly because some existing programs to help uninsured Americans obtain tests and vaccinations are set to expire this spring, according to one of the people familiar with the administration’s thinking.

But it remained unclear whether it would be enough to satisfy Republicans, particularly those who still question whether more pandemic-related spending is necessary at a time when infections are waning. In both cases, though, senior administration officials said the fast-evolving nature of both crises could force them to seek additional funds in the weeks ahead.

“Given the rapidly evolving situation in Ukraine, I anticipate that additional needs may arise over time,” Shalanda Young, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote in a letter to lawmakers obtained by The Washington Post. She added that she anticipates “additional funding will be needed to support the covid-19 response,” as well.

For now, the clock is ticking: Lawmakers have until the end of next week to finalize the emergency spending measures and broker a broader government funding deal, though they can still buy themselves additional time with another stopgap. Top Democrats and Republicans have insisted they have made progress in recent weeks, with Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on his chamber’s appropriations panel, telling reporters Wednesday that negotiators “haven’t sealed anything, but we’re moving positively.”

Without such a deal, Young, the acting OMB director, warned of significant consequences. In her missive, dated Wednesday, she said a failure to act could “constrain” the Pentagon and its readiness while preventing a wide array of agencies from carrying out efforts to combat the coronavirus, including a new administration initiative to bolster the delivery of tests and antiviral drugs.

Initially, the Biden administration had asked lawmakers to provide about $6.4 billion in response to Ukraine, hoping to boost programs at the State Department and Pentagon in response to the geopolitical crisis. The money was meant to shore up the country at a time when the president had joined with the international community in levying historic sanctions against Russia and key Kremlin-aligned figures. At the time, top officials warned that their ask could change as conditions on the ground warranted.

Soon, though, Democrats and Republicans alike quickly called for additional spending, and the Biden administration found reason for it. The roughly $10 billion request transmitted to Congress would help train Ukraine’s military, boost its cybersecurity defenses, provide food and other humanitarian aid, and fortify its electricity supply.

It also called for funding to enforce the president’s recent actions to punish Russia. That includes $59 million for a task force, announced during the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, that aims to enforce sanctions against Russian oligarchs who have avoided them. And it proposed $91 million for the Treasury Department, an allotment that would support the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, which can pursue offshore companies and trusts often hidden from government view.

The Biden administration’s request for aid to combat the coronavirus comes about a month after top officials told lawmakers that they had exhausted nearly all the money set aside for the Department of Health and Human Services to respond to the pandemic.

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Initially, HHS asked Congress for more than $30 billion to bolster public health programs, with a focus on stocking the country with more therapeutics and monoclonal antibodies and researching new vaccines. The Biden administration sought an additional $5 billion to aid the deployment of vaccines globally, hoping to help prevent more dangerous versions of the virus from originating in unprotected populations.

Ultimately, though, the administration settled on a formal request for $22.5 billion — with about $18.25 billion set aside for public health and $4.25 billion for global vaccine deployment. The latter figure amounts to less than some congressional Democrats initially sought, although party lawmakers have labored in recent days to try to increase the sum.

Even before the Biden administration transmitted the request, it had encountered early political obstacles, as spending-wary Republicans questioned whether the money is needed. Nearly a year after the party opposed Biden’s $1.9 trillion aid package, some including McConnell have urged the administration to repurpose existing aid rather than seek new funds. This week, three dozen GOP members also criticized the White House, saying it had failed to be transparent about how much has been spent and how much remains of the roughly $6 trillion in emergency funds approved since the start of the pandemic.

“We want to know where the money has gone,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who led a letter Wednesday to the Biden administration signaling the GOP may not support additional aid. The missive raised the possibility that Republicans could withhold their votes unless they first receive more information about the administration’s existing spending.

Taking to the Senate floor a day later, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) responded to the concerns with a warning. “Either we act now to secure the progress we made, or we risk backsliding,” he said.