Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video to plead for support as his country is besieged by Russian forces at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Zelenskyy addressed Congress as Ukraine continues to defend itself from an ongoing Russian invasion. (J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress are lukewarm about providing $47 billion in new emergency spending for the ongoing Ukrainian war against Russia’s invasion, COVID-19 and monkeypox public health campaigns, and to help states recover from natural disasters.
GOP senators, who have returned to Washington after Congress’ summer break, aren’t so sure the Biden administration’s request really is needed and are pushing the White House for more details on how the administration would distribute the money. Republicans also want to know exactly where previous funding for Ukraine, COVID-19 and natural disaster recovery has gone.
“The problem is they want to keep spending more money and throw more gasoline on the inflation fire,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn said of the $6.5 billion natural disaster request. “I think that’s a bad idea.”
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The White House asked that the money be included in a short-term funding bill that Congress must clear by Sept. 30 to keep the government open, one of the few must-do pieces of legislation expected to be passed before the midterm election.
While Democrats control both chambers of Congress, most legislation cannot advance through the Senate without at least 10 Republicans voting to move past the legislative filibuster. And spending bills are traditionally negotiated in a broadly bipartisan way, making minority party buy-in essential.
Cornyn said instead of providing new deficit spending on natural disasters, he’d instead like to see Congress clear a bill he co-sponsored with California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla that would allow local, state and tribal governments to use unspent COVID-19 funds for natural disaster recovery, or infrastructure projects.
The legislation passed the U.S. Senate unanimously last October, but has not been taken up in the U.S. House, where a bipartisan group of 158 lawmakers support an identical bill that was introduced about a week after the Senate vote.
The Biden administration last week requested lawmakers approve the $47 billion tranche of emergency spending for four areas when they pass a government funding bill later this month, saying the funding is essential.
The supplemental funding request proposed Congress provide $22.4 billion for the ongoing COVID-19 response within the United States and abroad, $13.7 billion for Ukraine’s war effort, $6.5 billion to help communities throughout the country recover and rebuild following natural disasters, and $4.5 billion to try to get the monkeypox outbreak under control.
At the moment, Republicans seem inclined to agree to provide some funding for Ukraine and possibly natural disaster response, but have rebuffed spending on COVID-19 and monkeypox.
Doubt about health funding
Senate GOP Whip John Thune of South Dakota said this week he doesn’t think it’s “necessary” for Congress to provide the White House’s $22.4 billion COVID-19 funding request, which it originally submitted in March, or its $4.5 billion monkeypox funding request.
“I just think both of those categories are areas where we believe there’s still sufficient money within the authorities that the administration already has,” Thune said.
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on the panel that funds public health programs, said he expects natural disaster response will likely get some funding, though he’s skeptical of the COVID-19 and monkeypox request.
“I think they’re asking for too much money without enough information as to how they’re going to use it,” Blunt said of the coronavirus and monkeypox requests.
If the Biden administration had requested something lower, perhaps $1 billion for monkeypox, Blunt said the White House could have “come up with a logical, reasonable sounding plan of what they’re going to do with that billion dollars.”
“It’s really pretty hard to spend $4 billion on one disease with a relatively small number of vaccines available,” Blunt said of the monkeypox request.
On the Ukraine funding request, Blunt said he expects the GOP will back some new spending, though he cautioned they’ll need more information from the White House first.
“I don’t think Ukraine would be the big problem. But showing that Ukraine really has already had all the money we’ve allocated spent on them might be something the administration has to show. And I’m not sure they can,” he said.
Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is also skeptical about more Ukraine funding, saying Thursday he wasn’t sure Congress needed to provide more for its resistance to Russia.
“I don’t know. We need to look at that real closely. If they need it, we need to do it,” Shelby said. “But do they need it this soon? I don’t know.”
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