Ukraine aid bill faces familiar Senate procedural obstacles
Any one out of 100 senators can object to swift passage, despite broad bipartisan support
The Senate finds itself in a familiar position after a $40.1 billion emergency funding package for Ukraine passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support Tuesday night.
It's only a matter of time before it clears for President Joe Biden's signature — but whether that occurs Thursday or in the middle of next week depends on the unanimous consent of 100 senators.
The vote will be Thursday “unless somebody screws it up," Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Wednesday.
But as of Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wasn't ready to let the package sail through as it did in the House a day earlier. And there were other concerns on the Republican side, including from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, about the availability of ships to ferry food aid to countries around the world suffering from high prices and shortages due to supply disruptions stemming from Russia's invasion.
Paul said Tuesday on "The Mark Reardon Show" on 97.1 FM in St. Louis that he wants to see an amendment to create a special inspector general to oversee Ukraine spending, similar to an office previously set up to track reconstruction aid to Afghanistan.
"My sympathies are with Ukraine; I wish them luck, I want them to defeat the Russians, I want them to push the Russians out of their country. But we also have to be concerned with our country and with double-digit inflation here, this will make it worse," Paul said. "We can’t just shovel piles of money out the door and have nobody oversee it."
On Wednesday, Paul said he'd object to a time agreement to expedite passage unless he can offer his amendment. "We actually would like it incorporated into the bill. It's not a big ask," Paul said. And he may have support from others such as Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who introduced his own bill Wednesday to create a special inspector general's office for Ukraine assistance.
Ernst's issue stems from a 1954 law that governs waterborne cargo "procured, furnished or financed" by the U.S. government. The law stipulates that at least 50 percent of the gross tonnage of agricultural and other shipments be transported on U.S.-flagged vessels, but Ernst said a grand total of four such ships currently exist.
“There are over 12,000 vessels worldwide that meet the specifications, but we can’t use them,” she said. “It’s going to cost more to transport the food than the food is actually worth."
Ernst is working on a temporary waiver of the shipping requirements for food aid to Ukraine and other countries in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere that are experiencing food access issues as a result of the conflict.
“If we don’t, we simply won’t get food where it needs to go,” she said. “We simply don’t have the ships to do it.”
Ernst wouldn't comment on any potential objections to moving ahead with the Ukraine package. "I want to move [the Ukraine bill] quickly, so let's just put it in there," Ernst said of her proposal.
Any amendments added to the bill would kick it back to the House, slowing the process further. But if Senate leaders don't accede to demands from Paul or any other senators with potential objections, they could force multiple cloture votes, dragging out final passage until the middle of next week.
[Emergency funding bill for Ukraine passes House]
Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said Paul's amendment could be added "if it improves the package and doesn't slow things down, but I have to look at it."
Shelby on Tuesday hesitated to say there was full bicameral, bipartisan agreement on the package. That was before it grew by $304 million after House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., offered a late amendment to boost funding to replenish Pentagon weapons and equipment stocks that are being delivered to Ukraine.
"The United States has the best weapons in the world, and it is critical that we not only supply those to our allies in their time of need — as we have done to Ukraine — but that we ensure our own troops continue to have what they need," House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, said in floor remarks Tuesday night. She was among the nearly three-fourths of House Republicans present who voted for the package, which passed 368-57.
On Wednesday morning, Shelby said his staff was still scrubbing the House-passed bill, but “I like what I see." Later, he said the two sides had "worked out everything."
Despite concerns from other GOP senators, Shelby said, "I'm sure we'll do something between now and tomorrow."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., another senior appropriator, said the precise timing of a vote shouldn’t matter much if Ukraine’s leaders know that weapons and other aid will be on their way.
“Once they know the money is coming, I don't think it's particularly critical whether it's this Thursday or next Wednesday, but we're gonna get it to [Biden] and get it done quickly,” Blunt said.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said there is a “high likelihood” that the Senate will vote Thursday on Ukraine aid.
“This is clearly urgent. Both caucuses heard from the Ukrainian ambassador yesterday that getting more military equipment, more support to the people of Ukraine, is urgent, and I see no interest broadly in the Senate in slowing this down,” said Coons, who chairs the Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee.
The package is the second major aid measure Congress is providing since Russia invaded its neighbor Feb. 24. The fiscal 2022 omnibus spending law, passed in March, included $13.6 billion for Ukraine.
Democrats paved the way for speedy action on the latest aid measure after ceding to a Republican desire to pass Ukraine aid separately from a stalled COVID-19 funding bill that has been tied up in a partisan fight over immigration policy.
“That’s a lot of money, but we’ve chosen sides and we need to stay with the Ukrainians,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Wednesday.