Congress rallies around more Ukraine aid as House passes $40 billion bill

The escalating brutality of the war in Ukraine has dampened voices on both the right and left sceptical of the United States’ involving itself in armed conflict overseas, fueling a rush by Congress to pour huge amounts of money into a potentially lengthy and costly offensive against Russia with few questions or reservations raised.

Catie Edmondson and Emily CochraneThe New York Times
Published : 11 May 2022, 04:29 AM
Updated : 11 May 2022, 04:29 AM

Under pressure to present a united front as President Vladimir Putin’s forces carry out a campaign of atrocities across Ukraine, lawmakers in both political parties who have previously railed against skyrocketing military budgets and entanglements in intractable conflicts abroad have gone largely silent about what is fast becoming a major military effort drawing on US resources.

The House on Tuesday night passed a $39.8 billion military and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine in an overwhelming 368-57 vote, weeks after lawmakers overwhelmingly approved $13.6 billion in emergency aid for the war effort. That total — roughly $53 billion over two months — goes beyond what President Joe Biden requested and is poised to amount to the largest foreign aid package to move through Congress in at least two decades.

It also comes at a time when the two parties have been unable to reach agreement to invest in domestic programs. They include the extension of a tax credit that pulled millions of American children out of poverty and even a pandemic response package to control the spread of the coronavirus, as Republicans and some Democrats raise concerns that such spending could exacerbate inflation and increase the federal deficit.

But stunned by the grisly images from Ukraine and leery of turning their backs on a country whose suffering has been on vivid display for the world, many lawmakers have put aside their scepticism and quietly agreed to the sprawling tranches of aid, keeping to themselves their concerns about the war and questions about the Biden administration’s strategy for American involvement.

And as Biden’s requests to Congress for money to fund the war effort have spiralled upward, leaders in both parties have largely refrained from questioning them. Instead, the packages have swelled to accommodate the two parties’ competing priorities, with Republicans adding money for military assistance and Democrats insisting that be matched by an equal addition for humanitarian aid.

They have been backed by pleas of urgency from both Ukrainian leaders and the Biden administration, which warned Congress this week that more aid would be needed before May 19 to continue providing military support.

On Tuesday, hours before the House was to vote, Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, met separately with Senate Republicans and Democrats to personally call for swift passage of the package.

“Her people are dying. They’re running out of supplies and ammunition. They need our help quickly,” said Sen Richard Durbin, D-Ill, the No 2 Democrat in the Senate, describing Markarova’s message as: “Thank you for all our help, but please speed it up.”

The result has been that, at least for now, Congress is quickly and nearly unanimously embracing historic tranches of foreign aid with little public debate about the Biden administration’s strategy, whether the volume of military assistance could escalate the conflict, or whether domestic priorities are being pushed aside to accommodate the huge expenditures overseas.

“Time is of the essence — and we cannot afford to wait,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California wrote to lawmakers in a letter on Tuesday ahead of the vote. “With this aid package, America sends a resounding message to the world of our unwavering determination to stand with the courageous people of Ukraine until victory is won.”

The package provides $6 billion for weaponry, intelligence support, training and other defence assistance to Ukrainian forces, as well as $8.7 billion to replenish US equipment sent to the country. It allocates $3.9 billion for European Command operations, including intelligence support and hardship pay for troops in the region.

It also allows Biden to authorize the speedy transfer of up to $11 billion of US equipment, weapons and defence supplies.

The legislation also sets aside $13.9 billion for the State Department, with the bulk going toward the Economic Support Fund to help Ukraine’s government continue to function. Another $4.4 billion will go to emergency food assistance in Ukraine and around the world, as the war disrupts the country’s food supply and distribution. The measure will devote $900 million to assistance for Ukrainian refugees, including housing, English language, trauma and support services.

A handful of reliably libertarian-leaning Republicans spoke up to oppose the legislation, arguing that the United States could not afford to spend so much abroad at a time when they argue the basic needs of US citizens are not being met. But they mostly complained about proposals to use the package to accomplish other legislative priorities — such as a measure to help Afghan refugees seek legal permanent status in the United States, which was dropped amid Republican resistance — rather than the package’s overall cost or aim.

The loudest voices in both parties were those declaring their full-throated support, arguing that failing to halt Putin’s campaign now would lead to a more costly conflict later.

“I think we’d all agree the most important thing going on in the world right now is the war in Ukraine,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, the Senate minority leader, recounting a recent phone call with Biden in which he said he had advised the president that the package should “move by itself and quickly.”

“He called back in about 15 minutes and agreed that we need to do this — Ukraine only, and quickly,” McConnell added. “I think we’re on the path to getting that done.”

Some lonely voices on Capitol Hill — mostly hard-right Republicans — emerged Tuesday to express misgivings. They were buoyed by Donald Trump Jr, the eldest son of former President Donald Trump, and a handful of conservative advocacy groups that mobilized in opposition to the bill.

Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, a former Army officer, said in an interview that he was concerned that in quickly approving the legislation without sufficient debate, Congress was essentially paving the way for Biden to shift the nation’s role in the world “from fighting everyone’s war to funding everyone’s war.”

“Was it urgent to get some aid to them early on? Absolutely,” Davidson said of Ukrainian forces.

But, he added, in earlier times of war, lawmakers had approved bills with sweeping, long-lasting ramifications, citing the Patriot Act and the 2001 law authorizing war against al-Qaida that has since been stretched to permit open-ended combat against Islamic militant groups across the world.

“When you rush these things and don’t put the proper framework around them, bad things happen,” he said.

In the early weeks of the war in Ukraine, sceptical lawmakers in both parties were more open about their apprehension about the role of the United States in the conflict.

More than 40 lawmakers on the right and left signed a letter in February warning Biden that he would need to receive authorization from Congress before involving US forces in the war. Some progressive lawmakers fretted openly about the possible unforeseen consequences of shipping thousands of weapons to fighters in Ukraine, while a handful of conservatives argued that the war was simply not an issue for the United States to become involved in.

But as Putin’s campaign became increasingly barbaric and the Biden administration began to send more support to Ukraine, including quietly providing Ukrainian forces with crucial intelligence, those voices grew quieter.

Congressional leaders in both parties have also moved quickly to tamp down on those voices.

“This is a large package, but the need is great, and time is of the essence,” Sen Chuck Schumer, D-NY, the Senate majority leader, said. “We have a moral obligation to stand with our friends in Ukraine. The fight they are in is a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism itself. We dare not relent swift action to help our friends in need.”

Each time Biden has requested Congress pass emergency aid, congressional leaders have significantly increased both the military and humanitarian funding. The legislation the House was poised to pass on Tuesday, for example, more than double the arms-transfer authority requested by Biden, effectively enabling him to dip into American stockpiles to send the Ukrainians more than twice as many weapons without coming back to Congress.

Each time, they have been urged to action by top Ukrainian officials who have proved masterful at rallying support for their cause. Lawmakers were moved to tears by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s emotional address to Congress in March.

Liberal Democrats have pointedly noted that the aid packages for Ukraine appeared to have a far easier path to the president’s desk than their domestic priorities. A $22.5 billion emergency coronavirus package has shrunk to less than half its size because of Republican demands that it be paid for with existing funds, and is mired in an election-year dispute over immigration.

“Our national defence is about helping the Ukrainians as they fight against an illegal and immoral Russian invasion,” said Sen Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “But our national defence is also about strengthening our families and our own domestic economy.”

“The disconnect around here really frustrates me,” she added.

But when Pelosi visited Kyiv and Poland to survey the wreckage wrought by Russian forces, liberals noted that she was accompanied by two powerful and outspoken anti-war progressives, Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, signaling the breadth of the US consensus behind Ukraine’s war effort.

“We should always have a debate, but the problem is that Ukraine is in the middle of a very intense war right now,” said Sen Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, who has often led the charge against increased military spending. “I think every day counts, and I think we have to respond as strongly and vigorously as we can.”

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