Dems set for House approval of Ukraine aid, drop COVID funds

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, of Calif., speaks to the media, Thursday, March 3, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, of Calif., speaks to the media, Thursday, March 3, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The House moved Wednesday toward approving a massive spending bill anchored by $13.6 billion for battered Ukraine and its European allies after top Democrats abruptly dropped their plan to also include fresh funds to battle COVID-19.

The House was sure to approve the Ukraine aid and the $1.5 trillion government-wide legislation containing it, which leaders were trying to push to passage Wednesday night. Senate approval, also assured, would be next, by week’s end or perhaps longer.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said it was “heartbreaking” to abandon the $15.6 billion for combatting the pandemic, a top priority for President Joe Biden and party leaders. The money was mostly to bolster U.S. supplies of vaccines, treatments and tests and battle the disease around the world, but a Democratic revolt over Republican-demanded state aid cuts to cover the new initiatives’ costs forced her to abandon that spending.

“We’ve got a war going on in Ukraine,” Pelosi told reporters, explaining the urgency Democrats felt in making concessions in bargaining with Republicans. “We have important work that we’re doing here.” She said with her party in the 50-50 Senate needing at least 10 GOP votes to pass legislation, Democrats “are going to have to know there has to be compromise.”

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The Ukraine aid included $6.5 billion for the U.S. costs of sending troops and weapons to Eastern Europe and equipping allied forces there in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and repeated, bellicose threats. There was another $6.8 billion to care for refugees and provide economic aid to allies, and more to help federal agencies enforce economic sanctions against Russia and protect against cyber threats at home.

Biden had requested $10 billion to respond to Russia’s invasion.

Pelosi said she talked to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for 45 minutes Wednesday. She said they discussed the weapons and other assistance his country needs and “the crimes against humanity that Putin is committing,” including a Russian airstrike that destroyed a maternity hospital. “This is the beast that Putin is,” Pelosi said.

While enmity toward Putin and a desire to send assistance to the region is virtually universal in Congress, lawmakers have had a hard time finding unity on other steps. In one area of agreement, the House was also planning to vote on a bill banning Russian oil imports — Biden imposed such a ban this week — and levying other sanctions, underscoring lawmakers’ eagerness to demonstrate they’re taking action.

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Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., called the $1.5 trillion measure a “reasonable compromise” and said its extra defense spending was “clearly necessary in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.”

In a remarkable and widespread rank-and-file rebellion, Democratic lawmakers froze the House into inactivity for most of Wednesday. Their demand: a refusal to accept Republicans’ insistence that the new COVID-19 spending be paid for with cuts in previously enacted pandemic aid to 30 states.

Pelosi eventually relented and decided to remove all pandemic spending from the government-wide, $1.5 trillion package. That underscored the pressure Congress feels to help Ukraine resist the Russian invasion before it’s too late and to help nearby nations bolster their militaries and absorb over 2 million refugees fleeing the fighting.

After dropping the COVID-19 money from the huge bill, the House planned to vote on a separate measure providing the full $15.6 billion, without cutting state aid. It was expected to pass but face an uphill fight in the Senate, where strong GOP opposition seemed likely.

The $1.5 trillion measure and its 2,741 pages were designed to keep agencies functioning through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Since it began Oct. 1, the government has functioned on short-term measures that prevented federal shutdowns but held programs to levels agreed to under President Donald Trump.

The new bill is infused with election-year victories for both parties. Democrats won a 6.7% increase over last year in domestic programs, to a total of $730 billion. Republicans were able to boost defense programs to $782 billion, a 5.6% increase.

Last spring, Biden proposed increases of 16% for domestic and just 2% for defense programs for this year. Neither was ever realistic because of Democrats’ tiny congressional majorities.

Since then, Russia’s pummeling of Ukraine made it impossible for Democrats to resist defense increases. And the relentless pandemic, families’ growing costs from inflation and collapse of Biden’s huge social and environment bill made it harder to stop Democrats from winning domestic boosts.

The bill would increase spending for child nutrition and child care, local law enforcement, improving broadband in rural areas, and education aid for disabled students and historically black colleges and universities.

The IRS would get an infusion to whittle down a big backlog of tax returns, and there would be boosts for veterans’ medical care, biomedical research and processing migrants entering the U.S. at the southwestern border.

The measure retains strict decades-old curbs against using federal money for nearly all abortions. It has $300 million in military assistance for Ukraine and $300 million to help nearby countries like the Baltic nations and Poland. Service members would get 2.7% pay raises, and Navy shipbuilding would get a boost in a counter to China.

More money would be spent for a program aimed at preventing and responding to sexual assaults in the military. There was $1 million to change the names of bases and roads in installations named after Confederate leaders.

There was also language saying a plaque should be installed outside the Capitol listing all police officers who battled Trump supporters who attacked the building on Jan. 6, 2021.

Also helping propel the bill to certain approval were thousands of hometown projects for both parties’ lawmakers. In the House alone, there were 2,021 such projects for Democrats worth $2.5 billion, and 706 worth $1.7 billion for Republicans, according to figures from that chamber. Totals for Senate projects were not immediately available.

These expenditures, once called earmarks but now dubbed community projects, were ubiquitous until Congress banned them in 2011, but they were revived in more limited form this year. This legislation includes money for an agricultural education program in Vermont, a water project in central California and money for the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library in Starkville, Mississippi.

And it names a federal building in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after Sen. Richard Shelby, the state’s senior GOP senator, a chief author of the bill who’s retiring after six terms.

As a backstop against delays, the House planned to pass a bill keeping agencies afloat through March 15

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