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Democrats to decouple Ukraine, COVID-19 funds

Plan under discussion would augment Biden's $33 billion Ukraine aid request by nearly $7 billion

President Joe Biden reluctantly agreed that pandemic aid talks could slow down Ukraine package.
President Joe Biden reluctantly agreed that pandemic aid talks could slow down Ukraine package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

President Joe Biden and top Democrats have agreed to a GOP demand to disentangle a stalled COVID-19 response package from a separate supplemental request for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine so the latter can move more quickly. 

At the same time, House and Senate Democrats have upped the price tag on the Ukraine package by $6.8 billion above Biden’s initial $33 billion request. Democrats proposed including an additional $3.4 billion for food aid and $3.4 billion more to replace U.S. military equipment sent to Ukraine, according to a source familiar with the offer.

In a statement, Biden called on Congress to pass the Ukraine supplemental “immediately, and get it to my desk in the next few days.”

Biden dropped his recommendation that lawmakers attach COVID-19 aid to the package after being “informed by Congressional leaders in both parties that such an addition would slow down action on the urgently needed Ukrainian aid — a view expressed strongly by several Congressional Republicans.”

“We cannot afford delay in this vital war effort,” Biden said in the statement. “Hence, I am prepared to accept that these two measures move separately, so that the Ukrainian aid bill can get to my desk right away.”

Still, it wasn’t immediately clear whether Republicans would agree to Democrats’ beefed-up Ukraine aid proposal, which was first reported by Punchbowl News. “No agreement has been reached and discussions are ongoing,” Blair Taylor, a spokeswoman for Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said.

A source familiar with the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity said negotiations were ongoing but that the latest offer represents “input” from Republicans. Another source familiar with the talks said initial GOP reaction has been favorable so far, and that the House could vote on the not-yet-unveiled package as soon as Tuesday.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Biden made a good decision in asking for the Ukraine and pandemic funding to be split. He said he hadn’t seen the most recent numbers for the package.

“I don’t care, as long as the money is going to help the war cause,” he said. “It’s in our interest, defeating Putin is priceless.”

Graham said he wanted to get his resolution to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism into the package.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., called for the prompt passage of the Ukraine aid in a Monday statement, saying Ukraine aid “shouldn’t get bogged down in partisan politics.”

“This is really simple: if we want Ukraine to win, we need to continue to arm them to the teeth,” he said. “A clean Ukraine bill will have the votes. Let’s get this done.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t reject the outlines of the Democrats’ offer in brief remarks Monday. “It may adjust some in the process, but we need to do it quickly,” McConnell told Punchbowl, while adding he was pleased that COVID-19 funds and an immigration-related dispute that tangled up the pandemic relief bill would be handled separately.

A separate, bipartisan $10 billion aid package for the ongoing pandemic response effort has been held up for a month due to a dispute over the so-called Title 42 program that allows migrants to be turned away at the border to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Biden has proposed to end the Trump-era program as of May 23, which Republicans and several Senate Democrats have said they oppose without alternatives in place to stem the expected surge of migrants.

Biden added that after sending him a Ukraine package, Congress should “move promptly” on the pandemic aid bill.

“Without timely COVID funding, more Americans will die needlessly,” he said. “We will lose our place in line for America to order new COVID treatments and vaccines for the fall, including next-generation vaccines under development, and be unable to maintain our supply of COVID tests.”

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