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As Ukraine burns, Washington splits over how to help

Republicans press to quickly send more weapons and to sanction Russian oil and gas; Democrats want bill included in omnibus spending package

Ukrainian troops man a checkpoint in Kyiv amid the Russian invasion of their country.
Ukrainian troops man a checkpoint in Kyiv amid the Russian invasion of their country. (Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

During President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night, his remarks on Ukraine drew perhaps the most bipartisan applause from representatives and senators. But the unity was illusory.

Republicans pressed the case Wednesday that they are more interested than Democrats in quickly providing new weapons to Ukraine and in imposing punishing new sanctions on Russia.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., offered legislation that would provide the $6.4 billion supplemental spending that the Biden administration says it wants for responding to the Ukraine crisis. Rubio’s proposal appears to spend more on new weapons than the administration has privately told lawmakers it wants in the package. 

Republicans are calling for such a bill to move forward promptly, but Democrats instead want to include it in the fiscal 2022 omnibus spending package that Congress hopes to send to the White House before a stopgap federal spending law expires March 11. 

Republicans have also accused the White House of wanting the Pentagon’s share of the aid package subtracted from the total amount for defense in the forthcoming omnibus, though Democrats insist they want no such thing.  

Biden on Wednesday announced new sanctions against Russia, including on Russian military and defense entities. But, except for restrictions on commerce involving oil extraction equipment, the list did not include a ban on U.S. purchases of Russian oil and gas. 

A phalanx of GOP senators said at a news conference Wednesday that it is time for America to stop buying energy from Russia, and they also called for requiring in law that any bank that does business with Russia cannot do business with America, among other ideas for sanctions.

“We should do everything we can to tighten the noose on the Putin economy,” said Rob Portman, R-Ohio.

Pentagon funds for Ukraine

Biden said in his State of the Union address that the U.S. is committed to helping Ukraine. 

“We are giving more than $1 billion in direct assistance to Ukraine,” Biden said. “And we will continue to aid the Ukrainian people as they defend their country and to help ease their suffering.”

But it is not yet known what new weaponry might be going to Ukraine beyond that already announced.

Rubio’s bill appears to be the first detailed legislative proposal made public that spells out how to allocate the $6.4 billion the administration has said Ukraine needs now to address its many pressing requirements. Some lawmakers want upward of $10 billion for Ukraine, but almost all are behind spending at least $6.4 billion.

Rubio’s bill would provide $2 billion of that total to the State Department for Ukraine’s humanitarian and infrastructure issues, he said in a statement. Another $4.4 billion of it would go to the Pentagon. 

Of the defense money, $1 billion would replace defense assets that the U.S. military has transferred to Ukraine or NATO allies. 

But most of the bill’s funds would be for new initiatives. These include $1 billion to give Ukraine weapons it has sought: “small arms, grenade launchers, and ammunition, man-portable missiles and rockets in a ready-to-fire configuration, night vision goggles, drones, communication equipment, bullet-proof armor, rations and medical kits,” Rubio’s statement said.

Also in the package would be $1 billion to supply NATO allies — such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — “replacement planes, tanks, munitions, anti-air and anti-tank weaponry” for themselves and to replace assets they sent to Ukraine. 

Another $1 billion would go toward Defense Department cyber defenses to protect critical infrastructure and nuclear command and control systems. 

Last, $400 million would help the Defense Department to deliver humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Rubio said his measure “encourages the administration to consider the efficacy of using the military” to deliver the humanitarian supplies, his statement said.

‘More ammo NOW!’

By contrast, top Defense Department officials have said, in essence, that the billions of dollars they are asking Congress for is to repay the Pentagon for money it has already spent or already announced it will spend. 

Neither the administration nor congressional Democrats have provided much detail about what is in the White House’s $6.4 billion request for Ukraine aid, except to tell reporters it includes $3.5 billion for the Pentagon, $2.9 billion in security assistance for NATO allies, as well as money for humanitarian supplies.

But on Tuesday, Mara Karlin, the assistant secretary of Defense for strategy, plans and capabilities, told the House Armed Services Committee that “most of” the administration’s request focuses on the cost of sending thousands of additional U.S. troops to Eastern European NATO allies and a substantial portion of the rest would be to replenish Defense Department inventories that were tapped to send weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. Karlin did not cite any new weaponry as part of the package.

U.S. officials were more precise behind closed doors about how much of the request is forward-looking and how much is not, according to Michael Waltz of Florida, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness panel.

Waltz said Wednesday that all of the administration’s proposal is aimed at paying back the Pentagon, not buying additional supplies for Ukraine. 

“Just briefed that 100% of the Defense Dept portion of the $6.4B aid package the Biden admin is requesting from Congress is to pay for the U.S. troops deploying to Europe and to replenish U.S. war stocks NOT new lethal aide for Ukraine,” Waltz tweeted. “Zelensky needs more ammo NOW!”

Missiles and oil

In a news conference Wednesday, Senate Republicans underscored Ukraine’s need for more new weapons. 

Idaho Republican Jim Risch, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, proposed legislation last month that would authorize $500 million in foreign military financing for Ukraine, and appropriate $250 million of it, so Ukraine can obtain U.S.-made air defense, anti-armor and anti-ship systems. 

His measure would set up a Ukraine Resistance Fund to help arm insurgents there and a new lend-lease authority for Ukraine as well as expedited congressional review of arms for Ukraine, among other new authorities.

“We have not supplied enough weapons to Ukraine,” Risch told reporters at Wednesday’s news conference. 

At the same event, Republican senators stepped up their calls for an end to American purchases of Russian oil and gas. 

“That’s $17 billion we are putting into Putin’s war chest,” said Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a member of the Armed Services Committee. “This is national security suicide.”

Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noted that Republicans agree with most of what Biden is doing in response to Russia’s attack but said, “There is no bipartisanship on the energy side.”

However, at least one Democrat, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, is said to be working with Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski on legislation to ban Russian oil and gas imports.

Manchin said in a statement Tuesday that America buys 500,000 barrels of crude oil and other petroleum products from Russia every day.

“It makes no sense at all for us to rely on energy from a country that is actively engaging in acts of war against a freedom-seeking democracy — Ukraine — when we are blessed with abundant energy resources right here in America,” he said.

Andrew Clevenger, David Lerman, Lindsey McPherson and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report. 

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