The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine aid package grows to $14 billion as Congress rushes legislation tied to Russia’s invasion

Lawmakers are also working on a massive spending bill to fund U.S. government operations

President Biden delivers remarks regarding the ban of imports of Russian oil to the United States at the White House on March 8. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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House lawmakers on Tuesday readied a battery of new economic punishments targeting Russia that would crack down on its ability to export goods, as Democrats and Republicans also raced to finalize nearly $14 billion in fresh aid for Ukraine.

The separate but related legislative efforts arrived as the Kremlin ratcheted up its deadly attacks, continuing an invasion that has rattled economies globally, created persistent jitters on Wall Street and catalyzed a massive surge in U.S. gas prices.

The day began with a call to action from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who urged lawmakers to respond swiftly and decisively to the still-intensifying conflict. In a letter, she announced the chamber would soon vote on a bill that would halt U.S. imports of Russian oil, empower the Biden administration to impose more sanctions and seek to suspend the Kremlin from the World Trade Organization.

“Because this legislation is an urgent imperative — both morally and for our security interests — the House will consider this legislation on the Floor today,” Pelosi said. “It is our hope that we have a strong, bipartisan vote.”

Pelosi’s push arrived shortly after President Biden announced his own plan to ban imports of Russian oil. The House speaker still described the scheduled vote as necessary, since it would show support for the Biden administration while holding Russian President Vladimir Putin “accountable for his premeditated, unprovoked war against Ukraine.”

But Pelosi’s aggressive timetable soon ran into potential trouble, as House Democrats unfurled a version of their bill that omitted one of the more severe punishments that lawmakers had hoped to levy. A bipartisan plan to end normal trade relations between the United States and Russia ultimately was scrapped at the request of the White House, after administration officials aired concerns about coordinating trade policy with allies, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversations.

The omission angered some lawmakers behind the scenes and threatened to upset the once-broad support for the legislation, the people said. In the House, it appeared to force lawmakers to push back a potential vote at least until Wednesday. Still, top negotiators including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said that he and his colleagues continued to engage the Biden administration around a potential compromise.

“There are also going to be other opportunities to legislate,” he said.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to put the finishing touches on a package of humanitarian, military and economic assistance for Ukraine. Lawmakers looked to append about $14 billion in aid to a long-term plan to fund the U.S. government, a measure that Congress must adopt before midnight Friday — or risk a federal shutdown that could hamstring Washington at home and abroad.

Congressional leaders said they still hope to unveil the broader spending bill imminently, setting up the House to vote on it as soon as Wednesday, and the Senate to do the same potentially before key federal agencies and programs run out of funds. That vote could come Friday, or even Saturday, wagered Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the leader of his chamber’s Appropriations Committee. Asked about the overall price tag, Leahy jokingly replied, “A lot.”

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The frenzy of legislative activity reflected Washington’s delicate, difficult geopolitical position, as the U.S. government looks to bolster Ukraine and other regional allies against Russian aggression — without provoking a direct conflict with a fellow nuclear superpower. So far, the Biden administration has joined with allies around the world in issuing crippling sanctions and other financial penalties, hoping that historic economic pressure might force Putin to negotiate an end to the war.

But the strategy has not ended hostilities — nor has it been without its costs. In the United States, Americans this week have experienced record-high gas prices, which now exceed $4 per gallon. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones industrial average and Nasdaq index both plummeted by the end of trading Monday and closed down again Tuesday, raising fears about a lingering spillover into the economy.

Biden, for his part, had warned about financial blowback for weeks, casting the potential for rising gas prices and other costs as unavoidable consequences in a now-global struggle to safeguard democracy. Speaking to reporters Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki echoed the president’s message, telling reporters that the United States is taking “all actions necessary,” especially to ease the hardship on Americans at the gas pump.

It remains unclear how such an oil blockade might affect energy prices: Even though the United States does not import substantial amounts of oil from Russia, Washington’s participation in a broader campaign to cut back on Russian crude could reduce supply, increase demand and raise costs globally. That concern initially prompted the White House to raise a note of skepticism about the idea, before it joined with world leaders Tuesday in taking aim at one of Russia’s most lucrative industries.

In response, Democrats and Republicans found rare unity in calling on Congress to follow suit in the days ahead.

“I think there’s more at stake than just the cost of gasoline,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “I think it’s an important message to send, so despite the president’s actions, I would like to see Congress pass a law.”

Russia's Ukraine invasion could be a global economic 'game changer'

Along with punishing Russia, lawmakers this week readied nearly $14 billion in assistance for Ukraine. The money is expected to boost key programs at the Pentagon, State Department and other agencies so that they can better deliver military assistance, help defend against cyberattacks, respond to food insecurity in the region and shore up other NATO allies in the face of any further Russian aggression.

The sum has grown steadily in recent days from the initial $10 billion endorsed by the Biden administration last week. Lawmakers wedded it to a broader, must-pass package to fund the U.S. government, a strategy meant to cut down on the sort of last-minute political bickering that pushed Washington to the brink of shutdown repeatedly over the past year.

The spending package is also expected to include $15 billion in aid in response to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers said Tuesday. That amount is less than the Biden administration initially requested as part of its strategy to shore up existing federal public health programs against future variants while delivering more vaccines globally.

The likely shortfall in coronavirus funds reflected lingering Republican concerns about the need for additional pandemic spending, since Congress has already approved roughly $6 trillion since the start of the crisis. Some GOP lawmakers have looked to ensure that the latest tranche of money is financed in full, potentially through repurposing dollars that had been set aside for cities and states, according to two congressional aides familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the talks.

But the broader package faces a slew of other potential headaches, after two groups of Republicans in recent days threatened to slow down its advance. The GOP lawmakers have demanded a vote to defund federal vaccine mandates and a fuller financial analysis of the measure, known as an omnibus, in twin moves that could delay the narrowly divided chamber — and imperil Ukraine aid in the process.

Leahy, however, expressed confidence that lawmakers could avert “frivolous amendments” and other last-minute political gambits meant for “social media” with only days to spare before government funding runs out.

“I’m hearing from more and more Republicans and Democrats that they’re opposed to that,” he added.

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

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