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Senate passes bill to avert shutdown, extend $14 billion in Ukraine aid

The measure now goes to President Biden for enactment. It would fund U.S. government operations through September and provide new humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

The Senate approved a $1.5 trillion package on March 10 that includes $13.6 billion in emergency aid of Ukraine by a vote of 68 to 31. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Congressional Democrats and Republicans took the final step Thursday night to approve roughly $14 billion in humanitarian, military and economic assistance to Ukraine, part of a sweeping spending package that funds the federal government and staves off a looming shutdown that would have occurred at the end of the week.

The overwhelmingly bipartisan Senate vote now sends the measure to President Biden for his signature, capping off a fierce, urgent push in the nation’s capital to respond to the geopolitical unrest roiling Europe as a result of Russia’s invasion.

The aid includes money to shore up Ukraine and its defenses, including investments meant to help protect against cyberattacks and bolster regional allies against any further Kremlin-led aggression. It also features new support for federal programs that allow the U.S. government to respond to food insecurity, assist in refugee resettlement and address other humanitarian needs.

As talks produce no agreement, Russia escalates its attacks.

The emergency package further empowers Washington to enforce the significant, crippling sanctions it has levied on Russia and its political elite in recent weeks. The money underscores a broader global strategy to maximize economic pressure on the country and its leader, President Vladimir Putin, in a bid to force him to rethink the war.

“This is an area where the American people overwhelmingly support the people of Ukraine,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a speech earlier Thursday. “This is not a Democratic and a Republican issue. This is a human rights issue.”

The total $13.6 billion in assistance arrives days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered an emotional plea to U.S. lawmakers, urging them to act swiftly and decisively to help his war-torn country. The U.S. government has not provided the fuller range of military support that Zelensky seeks, as Washington scrambles to steer clear of a direct confrontation with a fellow nuclear superpower. But the aid that lawmakers did approve still amounts to a significant sum, which the Biden administration previously said it could look to augment further if the conflict continues to worsen.

Democrats and Republicans secured the money in tandem with a $1.5 trillion bill to fund key federal agencies and operations. Its successful advance after months of bipartisan talks marked a significant legislative victory in its own right, averting a shutdown that would have occurred after midnight Friday in the absence of congressional action. The House approved the spending package a day earlier.

The sweeping endeavor paves the way for major funding increases at top federal agencies overseeing health care, science, education, labor and defense. It replaces patchwork agreements that had essentially kept federal agencies’ normal operating budgets flat in the first year of Biden’s term, denying the White House an opportunity until now to translate some of its broader policy ambitions into reality. And it reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act, a law that lapsed three years ago that aids and protects women in response to sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes.

But lawmakers still could not accomplish everything they intended, including an attempt to provide $15 billion to combat the coronavirus. The money, which was meant to restock federal initiatives for testing, therapeutics and vaccines, fell out of the package after a last-minute political dispute over how to pay for it. The mishap left House and Senate Democrats scrambling to devise a new way to secure the investments, which Senate Majority Leader Charles. E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) described earlier in the day as “very much needed.”

“We must, we absolutely must, secure more covid money,” he later said before lawmakers voted. “We’re going to keep working on this. It’s too important to ignore.”

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In providing aid to Ukraine, lawmakers overcame the initial partisanship that had divided their response to the conflict, after they failed to muster sufficient support to adopt their own sanctions package this year. The shifting political winds reflected the harsh reality of Russia’s military invasion, which has ravaged Ukrainian cities with deadly attacks that have intensified by the day.

“This is not a way to run a railroad,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) in a speech, lamenting that many members had little time to review the roughly 2,700-page bill before the vote. “But we all know democracy is under attack in the world, and that means we need to do everything we can to provide for our defense and support our friends and allies.”

Democrats and Republicans signaled this week that there are a wide array of additional measures on the horizon, including new legislation to punish Russia. That includes a growing bipartisan push in the House and Senate to end normal U.S. trade relations with the country, opening the door for tariffs on Russian goods. The idea initially had been included as part of a bill approved in the House on Wednesday to ban U.S. imports of Russian oil, affirming a policy Biden enacted on his own. But Democrats removed the trade section at the request of the president’s aides, who felt it needed to coordinate more with its allies.

“When Congress returns to Washington next week, we will act decisively, in a bipartisan manner, to suspend permanent normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus,” said Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the top lawmaker on the tax-and-trade focused House Ways and Means Committee.

Republicans, meanwhile, have pushed aggressively for additional lethal aid to Ukraine — including more military equipment. Taking to the Senate floor earlier Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted the Biden administration for not providing aircraft and other materiel to the fight. A broader group of Republicans led by Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa later called on the president to “provide urgently needed airport that will bolster the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces to defend their country and help save civilian lives.”

House passes package to avert shutdown, approves $14 billion in aid for Ukraine

For all its significance, the new Ukrainian aid still amounted to only one small component of the broader spending package Democrats and Republicans approved on Thursday. The agreement, known in congressional parlance as an omnibus, sets federal spending levels for the remainder of the 2022 fiscal year, which concludes at the end of September.

In total, it sets federal domestic, discretionary spending at a level of $730 billion, an amount that covers significant boosts at agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Labor Department and the Education Department. The money allows the Biden administration to proceed with key initiatives, including the work to implement a $1.2 trillion infrastructure law adopted last year to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections.

The bill further helps the Internal Revenue Service hire new staff to combat its mounting backlog, which has slowed down its ability to provide tax refunds. It invests anew in affordable housing programs, charters a $1 billion campaign to research cancer cures and empowers the Food and Drug Administration to regulate electronic cigarettes.

With it, lawmakers agreed to spend more on the Defense Department, with funding levels slated to rise to $742 billion under the soon-to-be enacted law. That includes new money to finance a planned pay increase for U.S. troops. Republicans demanded the budget boost at the Pentagon in marathon talks with Democrats, who had fought for long-sought cuts — but conceded the increases at the Defense Department anyway to achieve their domestic priorities. It prompted Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) to herald the trajectory of the talks at a time when he said “political compromise has become more and more difficult here.”

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The Senate adopted the overall package after sharp exchanges on the chamber floor, punctuated by votes over politically minded amendments. Once again, Republicans led by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah tried defund federal vaccine and testing policies in response to the coronavirus — and once again, the GOP gambit failed.

Another GOP amendment by Sen. Mike Braun (Ind.) would have canceled billions of dollars in earmarks, since lawmakers for the first time in a decade could request and obtain money for local infrastructure improvements and other pet projects. But Democrats and Republicans defeated that proposal as well, a reflection of their shared satisfaction with the return of a process that allows them to bring money home to their states and districts.

Earlier in the debate, GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida tried to separate the Ukrainian aid from the larger measure to fund the federal government, a move that might have made it easier politically for some in his party to oppose the spending package. He described the coupling of the two as an example of “stupid games.”

But Democrats quickly objected to Scott’s request, which they said would delay humanitarian assistance and threaten a government shutdown. An incensed Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) even took to the floor to blast the move as “really, really, really a bad idea,” warning that the consequences of Scott’s actions could imperil some operations at the Pentagon.

“The bottom line is if you want to help the Ukrainian people out,” Tester said, “then pass the omnibus bill that’s in front of us.”