Democrats are mulling whether to link further Ukraine assistance with coronavirus aid as a way out of an entrenched stalemate with Republicans.
Democrats are eager to pass President Biden’s latest Ukraine assistance request quickly, bringing it up in the Senate as soon as next week. But using that aid as a vehicle for the stalemated $10 billion coronavirus package has the backing of both the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is keeping a tight lid on how he will bring up the package, which could come to the floor as soon as next week.
“It is my hope that a bipartisan agreement can be reached very soon and that the Senate can begin processing this aid package as early as next week. Quickly approving this emergency funding for Ukraine is essential to help the people of Ukraine in their fight against Russia,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.
Democrats will meet as a group on Tuesday, where they are expected to discuss the path forward on Ukraine funding. Members of Democratic leadership indicated after a meeting on Monday that there wasn’t yet a decision.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), a member of Democratic leadership, told The Hill that there are ongoing discussions about if the two issues should be linked.
“Both are critically important,” she said. “They are both emergencies.”
The White House formally sent its more-than-$30 billion Ukraine request to Congress last week. It includes additional security, economic and humanitarian assistance for Kyiv to help fend off the prolonged Russian attack over the next five months.
That’s divided up between $20 billion in security assistance for Ukraine, $6 billion for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and $4 billion for the State Department’s foreign military financing program.
“The president, of course, put them forward because — together. And that is his preference: for them to move together, because they are both essential. There’s urgency to moving them both forward,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told The Hill that he would like to link them so they could both pass, while acknowledging that they could both move separately.
“I would like to move both of them together,” Leahy said, adding that while the Senate needed to pass the Ukraine assistance, the world could also face “a whole new type of COVID and we ought to be prepared for it.”
But Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), during an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation,” said that he didn’t believe that the issues need to be tied together.
“The procedure where you put bills together or separate them is quirky and sometimes unpredictable. … We need COVID aid, we need Ukraine aid, we should do them together or separately, but we shouldn’t wait around,” Kaine said.
Both sides want to move the new round of assistance quickly, but Republicans are warning that if Democrats link Ukraine aid to the coronavirus funds, they could block it from getting the 60 votes needed to move it forward.
“I think it’s a lot easier if they take the Ukraine bill separately,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator.
Asked about the potential that Ukraine assistance and coronavirus relief are linked, he added: “It will be harder corralling Republican votes for that for sure.”
Schumer and a group of Senate Republicans previously reached a deal on $10 billion in coronavirus assistance.
But that quickly hit a stalemate with Republicans demanding a vote on Title 42, a Trump-era pandemic public health policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants at the border and blocks them from seeking asylum.
Republicans view the two as related because the administration is trying to lift a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) pandemic rule while a broader public health emergency remains in place. And they have an advantage on the Senate floor because five Democrats have signed onto a proposal from Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) to prevent the administration from lifting Title 42 as long as the broader public health emergency is in effect.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, indicated on Monday that it was unclear if they would be linked and that after a closed-door leadership meeting there was still “no decision.”
“I want to move …the Ukraine appropriations as fast as we can,” Durbin said.
If Democrats don’t try to link Ukraine aid to the coronavirus funds, it’s unclear what the path forward is for vaccine-related assistance absent a deal on Title 42. Republicans have made clear that they are willing to walk away from the deal on $10 billion in coronavirus assistance unless they get a Title 42 vote. There’s also no other must-pass legislation expected to come up soon in the Senate to which Democrats could try to hitch the COVID funds.
Schumer, during his floor speech on Monday, urged Republicans to come to the table, saying in addition to Ukraine assistance “the Senate must also keep prioritizing another round of funds to fight COVID and keep our families safe.”
“On Ukraine funding and COVID funding, Republican obstruction will not serve the American people. Instead of threatening political games I urge Senate Republicans to work with us to get moving on COVID funding ASAP,” Schumer said.