Biden asks Congress for $33 billion for Ukraine aid, pleads again for COVID funds
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday asked Congress to approve $33 billion more in funding to help Ukraine fight off a Russian invasion that has lasted more than two months and claimed thousands of lives.
Biden also asked U.S. lawmakers to make it easier for the federal government to sell off assets seized from sanctioned Russians to help fund the Ukrainian war effort.
“This so-called supplemental funding addresses the needs of the Ukrainian military during the critical weeks and months again,” Biden said from the Roosevelt Room in the White House. “And it begins the transition to longer-term security assistance that’s going to help Ukraine deter and continue to defend against Russian aggression.”
Republicans and Democrats are expected to quickly begin drafting the emergency spending bill that administration officials expect to last for five months, though a stalemate over a $10 billion bipartisan agreement to fight COVID-19 within the United States could affect those efforts.
The Biden administration originally asked Congress to approve $22.5 billion for domestic and global programs to test, treat and provide vaccines against COVID-19 in early March, but two bipartisan agreements have yet to reach either the U.S. House or U.S. Senate floor.
Biden renewed calls for the full amount Thursday, saying the United States cannot let its guard down.
“Without additional funding we can’t preorder the amount of vaccines we need, and we risk losing our spot in line for vaccines that target multiple variants,” Biden said. “We’re running out of supply for therapeutics, like the antiviral pills that we desperately need.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has not ruled out tying together the new Ukraine spending bill and the current COVID-19 aid package. But, Biden said Thursday he didn’t care if Congress linked the two measures or passed them individually, as long as they both get to his desk.
Title 42 complication
The coronavirus bill, however, is tied up in debate over whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should end a Trump-era program, known as Title 42, that allows border patrol officials to expel migrants at the Southern border.
The CDC plans to end the program in late May, a decision that has frustrated GOP lawmakers and centrist Democrats, who are concerned the Biden administration doesn’t have a comprehensive plan in place to handle an expected surge in migrants.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, reiterated Tuesday he wants a floor vote on Title 42, and he’s eyeing the COVID-19 bill as the place to do that in the form of an amendment.
“I want to make it clear to you and the majority leader that we’ll need to have a Title 42 vote at some point here, in all likelihood on the COVID package,” McConnell said.
Biden said Thursday that the courts are deciding whether his administration can end the program.
“The court has said we can’t, so far. And what the court says, we’re going to do,” Biden said. “The court could come along and say we cannot do that and that’s it.”
A second Ukraine request
Thursday’s request for billions in economic, humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine is the second time the White House has asked Congress to provide billions for the war effort since Russia invaded in late February.
The first Ukraine aid request, sent up alongside the COVID-19 request in early March, asked U.S. lawmakers to provide $10 billion for economic, humanitarian and war assistance.
Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill quickly bumped that up to $13.6 billion before attaching it to a much larger, must-pass government funding package, which received broad bipartisan support.
The Ukraine funding was divvied up among several U.S. departments and agencies.
The bulk of the money, $6.5 billion, went to the Defense Department, with $3.5 billion for backfilling military equipment that had gone to Ukraine and $3.1 billion to deploy U.S. troops to NATO allies in Europe.
The U.S. State Department received $3.972 billion and the U.S. Agency for International Development received $2.795 billion for various humanitarian and economic assistance programs.
The U.S. military has used up much of that $3.5 billion by sending several packages of equipment — ranging from Howitzers to drones to small arms — to Ukraine.
The funding request Biden sent to Congress this week asks for $20.4 billion in military and security assistance, $8.5 billion in economic assistance and $3 billion in humanitarian assistance and food security.
The United States expects the funding “to enable Ukraine’s success over the next five months of” the war, according to an administration official who didn’t define what success means.
American allies and partners, especially those in the Group of Seven nations, are expected to “provide comparable levels of assistance” to Ukraine, according to the official.
Funds for U.S. food production
Not all of the money would be spent abroad, however.
The White House spending request asks Congress to approve $500 million for domestic food production assistance to bolster crops like wheat and soybeans that have been affected by the war in Ukraine.
The U.S. government plans to provide more access to credit and reduce the risk farmers can face when growing those crops by providing “higher loan rates and crop insurance incentives,” according to a White House fact sheet.
Additional funding would go towards increasing domestic production of “critical minerals and materials that have been disrupted” by the war, including those used in defense systems and car manufacturing, according to the fact sheet.
The White House also wants U.S. lawmakers to enhance what officials are allowed to do with assets seized from sanctioned Russian officials.
The Biden administration wants to add sanctions evasion to the definition of “racketeering activity” in the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. This would give the Justice Department the ability “to dismantle organizations that enable violations of U.S. sanctions.”
An administration official said Thursday that the White House doesn’t believe the proposed changes violate due process.
Anyone with an interest in the property would have the opportunity to raise that and seek judicial review. The property seized would also need to have a “nexus to criminal conduct,” according to an administration official
“With those safeguards, we feel confident that this satisfies the constitutional requirement,” the official said.
The Biden White House also wants to make it a crime for anyone to “knowingly or intentionally possess proceeds directly obtained from corrupt dealings with the Russian government.”
Biden said during his address Thursday that changes would “ensure that when the oligarchs’ assets are sold off, funds can be used directly to remedy the harm Russia caused and help rebuild Ukraine.”