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Sunday September 25th, 2022 5:59PM

Hill bargainers seek Ukraine aid deal, COVID aid in question

By The Associated Press
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers are working toward compromise on President Joe Biden’s $33 billion Ukraine aid request, even as signs emerge that Democrats may need to swallow another COVID-19 setback and drop their goal of wrapping pandemic spending into the package.

Bipartisan talks among House and Senate Appropriations committee leaders are underway in hopes of producing legislation Congress could vote on as soon as next week, members of both parties say. Changes in Biden’s proposal are likely — the price tag, particularly for military spending, could rise — but there’s wide agreement on the urgency of helping Kyiv and regional allies resist Russia’s 10-week-old onslaught.

Republican budget-writers “are probably knocking some things out and adding some things. But I think by and large, everybody agrees we’ve got to do all we can to help,” said No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota. He said some Republicans believe “this package may not be robust enough, but I think it probably strikes close to the right balance.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., cited broad backing for the measure Thursday but warned, “This isn't about battling climate change." McConnell aides said he was objecting to some proposed funding to international organizations that Republicans have criticized for spending money on alternative energy initiatives.

“If the Senate is serious about helping Ukraine win, we need to show it by passing supplemental assistance. Clean, no strings attached, and soon," McConnell said.

One participant said bargainers must resolve details of Biden proposals to provide health care, food and other benefits to Ukrainian refugees in the U.S. and to strengthen government powers to use assets seized from billionaire friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin to help Ukraine. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to describe the talks publicly.

When Biden sent his $33 billion proposal to Congress last week, he wrote that “to avoid needless deaths in the United States and around the world," Congress should include additional billions for COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines. Democrats have hoped doing so would pressure the GOP to accept the pandemic spending, which Democrats say is needed to prepare for the virus’ all but inevitable next curveball.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has resorted to more lawyerly language, not specifying that the two issues should be combined. “We need to figure out the best way to get both done, and that’s what we’re going to try to do in the next few weeks,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Minutes earlier, McConnell spelled out his view of the best way forward.

“There is overwhelming bipartisan support for getting the Ukrainians as much help as they need as quickly as possible,” McConnell said. “For that to happen here in Congress, that package needs to be moved without the other extraneous issues.”

While combining Ukraine and pandemic money into one package has broad Democratic support, bargainers say party leaders haven’t made a final decision on that yet. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in an interview that he wants funding for Ukraine and COVID-19 tied together because both are crucial.

“It may” fall out of the bill, Leahy said of the pandemic money, “and I think that would be a mistake.”

Biden’s overall proposal is anchored by $20 billion to help Ukraine and nearby countries defend themselves and replenish U.S. arms shipped to the area. There’s $8.5 billion to bolster Ukraine’s economy and government and $3 billion for refugees and to supplement food supplies around the world disrupted by the war.

The proposal’s fine print, contained in White House documents sent to Congress, adds texture to Biden’s plans.

It would make it easier for Russians with advanced degrees in more than two dozen sciences — including missile propulsion, artificial intelligence, semiconductors and cybersecurity — to get job-based visas and come to the U.S. Besides strengthening the U.S. in those fields, the move would “undercut Russia’s innovative potential, benefitting U.S. national security,” according to the materials accompanying Biden’s proposal.

The documents, which break down Biden’s defense request by each branch of the military, include $800,000 for the new U.S. Space Force. The expenditures are described as covering intelligence analysis, flying hours, weapon system sustainment and other costs, but no other details are provided. The overall U.S. defense budget is around $800 billion.

There’s nearly $600 million for Patriot anti-missile systems in Europe, money to care for wounded Ukrainian troops at an American military medical center in Germany and a proposal to let Afghan refugees who’ve fled to this country since the U.S. withdrawal become lawful permanent residents if they qualify.

Rapid approval of Ukraine aid would let both parties avoid an election-year display of dysfunction by spiraling into a spat over the widely popular cause of helping Ukraine avoid being overpowered by Russia.

Passage of Ukraine aid separately would also preserve GOP hopes of boxing Democrats into a corner on border security, an issue Republicans are banking on in November’s elections for congressional control.

Should Senate Democrats press ahead with a separate pandemic bill, Republicans plan to force a vote on retaining a Trump-era order citing the pandemic as justification for quickly removing asylum-seekers crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. The Biden administration has planned to let that rule expire May 23, and Democrats are divided over whether to extend it.

Already this year, a White House request for $30 billion for the pandemic was cut in half and ultimately dropped by the House. A bipartisan Senate compromise then trimmed it to $10 billion, but stalled over GOP demands for a vote on immigration.

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