House prepares to vote on $ 1.5 trillion omnibus spending package, with $ 13.6 billion in Ukraine aid

Washington – The House is moving closer to a vote Wednesday on a $ 1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill to keep the federal government open and provide $ 13.6 billion in aid for Ukraine and Eastern European countries, while $ 15.6 billion for the response to COVID-19 fell by the wayside as Democrats worked to pass the legislation.

The legislation, which is more than 2,700 pages, is the culmination of months of bicameral and bipartisan negotiations between top Democratic and Republican appropriators. The details of the package, which funds federal agencies for the remainder of the fiscal year, were released early Wednesday, ahead of the Friday deadline for Congress to pass legislation to avert a partial government shutdown.

A dispute over how to pay for the COVID-related provisions prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to remove the pandemic money from the bill Wednesday afternoon, a move she called “heartbreaking.” Republicans had demanded the $ 15.6 billion be offset by cuts elsewhere, and Democratic leaders agreed to cover half the cost by using leftover money from previous pandemic aid. But that earned objections from some Democratic members, who said their states already had plans to spend the funds.

“This has been quite a day,” Pelosi told reporters at the beginning of a press conference Wednesday afternoon.

The speaker bristled at the press for focusing multiple questions on the internal deliberative legislative process, while Ukraine says Russia has bombed a maternity and children’s hospital.

To alleviate a potential time crunch in the Senate, the House was also poised to vote on a short-term continuing resolution that would keep government agencies running through March 15 if the omnibus spending bill does not get to President Biden’s desk before the end of the week.

The legislation includes $ 730 billion in nondefense spending, a 6.7% increase over fiscal year 2021, which Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said is the “largest increase in four years.” It also provides $ 782 billion in defense spending, a 5.6% increase over last year.

Senator Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Appropriations panel, said during the course of negotiations on the deal that he “insisted upon dollar-for-dollar parity for defense and non-defense increases.”

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised the bipartisan deal, saying in a statement it will help fund Mr. Biden’s key domestic priorities.

“This bipartisan agreement will help us address many of the major challenges we face at home and abroad: from COVID-19, to the vicious and immoral attack on Ukraine, to the need to lower costs for hardworking American families,” they said.

White House Acting Budget Director Shalanda Young urged Congress to send the legislation to Mr. Biden for his signature “without delay.”

“The bipartisan funding bill is proof that both parties can come together to deliver for the American people and advance critical national priorities,” she said in a statement. “It will mean historic levels of assistance for the Ukrainian people, a bold new initiative to drive unprecedented progress in curing cancer and other diseases, and more support to keep our communities safe.”

Ukraine assistance


Russia and Ukraine agree to peace in selected cities to get thousands of people to safety

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The $ 13.6 billion in support for Ukraine is more than the $ 10 billion the White House requested from Congress last week to assist Ukraine and European allies in the wake of Russia’s invasion.

More than $ 6.5 billion of the emergency supplemental assistance will go to the Defense Department, while $ 3.9 billion is for the State Department for humanitarian assistance. The US Agency for International Development will also receive nearly $ 2.8 billion to provide aid for vulnerable populations in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, while the Justice and Commerce Departments will get smaller sums.

Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have caused the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, with more than 2 million fleeing Ukraine for neighboring countries, according to the United Nations. The humanitarian crisis and ongoing war, which was launched by Russia two weeks ago, sparked bipartisan calls for the US to bolster its support for Ukraine.

COVID-19 relief gets dropped

The White House had asked Congress to add $ 22.5 billion in new spending for the COVID-19 response, though Senate Republicans questioned the need for more money.

The $ 15.6 billion in the initial bill – less than the White House’s request – would have helped procure treatments and vaccines, and assist with the global fight against COVID-19. More than $ 10 billion was for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, with most of the money going towards securing oral antivirals, monoclonal antibodies, and vaccines, and the rest for development of shots to protect against future variants.

Roughly $ 4.4 billion of the $ 15.6 billion would have gone toward supporting an initiative to boost vaccinations around the world and focus on therapeutics and medical countermeasures to fight COVID-19.

As the House convened Wednesday morning to move toward taking up the sweeping spending package with procedural votes, Pelosi issued a letter to her Democratic colleagues that seemingly sought to assuage concerns about how the $ 15.6 billion for pandemic response will be paid for. The Biden administration, she said, identified $ 8 billion from American Rescue Plan programs that have expired, with money left over.

“Democrats were also able to ensure that the remaining payments to localities received no cuts in funding,” she wrote. “Republicans continued to insist on state cuts, but we were able to ensure that all states receive at least 91% of the state funds that they expected to receive.”

But as the day wore on, Pelosi said Democrats would scrap the COVID-related portion of the bill to ensure the rest of the package could pass.

“Because of Republican insistence – and the resistance by a number of our Members to making those offsets – we will go back to the Rules Committee to remove COVID funding and accommodate the revised bill,” she said in another letter. “We must proceed with the omnibus today, which includes emergency funding for Ukraine and urgent funding to meet the needs of America’s families.”

Other provisions

The sweeping spending packing reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act, which expired in late 2018, and increases the maximum Pell Grant award by $ 400.

The bill includes $ 1 billion for Mr. Biden’s new cancer research initiative, known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, and provides $ 3.9 billion in grants to state and local law enforcement, an increase of $ 506.4 million above fiscal year 2021.

Of the $ 112.2 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, $ 97.5 billion is for veterans medical care, including mental health care, women’s health and homelessness assistance.

The bill also instructs the Architect of the Capitol to place an “honorific plaque” on the Capitol’s West front honoring law enforcement officers and agencies that responded to the January 6 assault on the Capitol building.

Rebecca Kaplan and Zak Hudak contributed reporting.

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