The House approved a massive spending bill Wednesday night that would rush $13.6 billion in U.S. aid to battered Ukraine and its European allies, after top Democrats were forced to abruptly drop their plan to include fresh funds to battle COVID-19.
Hours earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had to abandon the bill’s $15.6 billion for combating the pandemic, a decision she called “heartbreaking” and that spelled defeat for a top priority of President Joe Biden and party leaders. The money was mostly to bolster U.S. supplies of vaccines, treatments and tests and battle the disease around the world, but a Democratic revolt over Republican-demanded state aid cuts to cover the new initiatives’ costs forced her to scrap that spending.
“We’ve got a war going on in Ukraine,” Pelosi told reporters, explaining the urgency Democrats felt in making concessions in bargaining with Republicans. “We have important work that we’re doing here.” She said with her party in the 50-50 Senate needing at least 10 GOP votes to pass legislation, Democrats “are going to have to know there has to be compromise.”
The House approved the overall bill in two separate votes. The measure’s security programs were overwhelmingly approved by 361-69, the rest by 260-171, with most Republicans opposed.
The Ukraine aid included $6.5 billion for the U.S. costs of sending troops and weapons to Eastern Europe and equipping allied forces there in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and repeated, bellicose threats. There was another $6.8 billion to care for refugees and provide economic aid to allies, and more to help federal agencies enforce economic sanctions against Russia and protect against cyber threats at home.
Biden had requested $10 billion for the package.
Pelosi said she talked to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for 45 minutes Wednesday. She said they discussed the weapons and other assistance his country needs and “the crimes against humanity that Putin is committing,” including a Russian airstrike that destroyed a maternity hospital. “This is the beast that Putin is,” Pelosi said.
While enmity toward Putin and a desire to send assistance to the region is virtually universal in Congress, lawmakers have had a hard time finding unity on other steps. In one area of agreement, the House also planned a vote on a bill banning Russian oil imports — Biden imposed such a ban this week — and levying other sanctions, underscoring lawmakers’ eagerness to demonstrate they’re taking action.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., called the $1.5 trillion measure a “reasonable compromise” and said its extra defense spending was “clearly necessary in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.”
In a remarkable and widespread rank-and-file rebellion, Democratic lawmakers froze the House into inactivity for most of Wednesday. Their demand: a refusal to accept Republicans’ insistence that the new COVID-19 spending be paid for with cuts in previously enacted pandemic aid to 30 states.
Pelosi eventually relented and decided to remove all pandemic spending from the government-wide, $1.5 trillion package. That underscored the pressure Congress feels to help Ukraine resist the Russian invasion before it’s too late and to help nearby nations bolster their militaries and absorb over 2 million refugees fleeing the fighting.