Welcome back to the government shutdown report. Government funding dries up eight days from now, on March 11, Ukraine is still fighting the invasion of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Those two things are inextricably linked now, as President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders try to deal with all that and more in one omnibus spending bill. Additionally, Democrats and the administration would like to take the opportunity we now have of some pandemic breathing room to prepare for the next likely new variant wave, so we’re not caught unprepared. Republicans, meanwhile, talk a good game of supporting Ukraine, but certainly aren’t going to unite with the president and the majority for the good of democracy worldwide—not if they can force their agenda and continue to obstruct.
The administration has requested an emergency $32.5 billion supplemental spending bill for Ukraine ($10 billion, up from $6.4 billion last week) and coronavirus funding ($22.5 billion). The Ukraine aid would help shore up the nation’s defenses, secure its electrical grid, and provide humanitarian assistance there and in European allied nations helping in the defense and in accepting refugees. The coronavirus funding would replenish public health funds that have been nearly depleted by the pandemic and include some new funding for testing, therapeutics, and vaccine development for what’s probably coming—a new wave of infection from a new variant.
Republicans, you probably won’t be surprised, are finding ways to object and slow this all down.
The week started with optimism from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who told his colleagues on an official caucus call that they would vote on the omnibus spending bill on March 8, suggesting that they’d had a basic agreement on the framework and were ready to figure out the details.
Mitch McConnell poked a hole in that optimism almost immediately, announcing Tuesday that negotiators had “hit a snag” over Ukraine assistance because, he said, Democrats were trying to repurpose already apportioned Pentagon funds. On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed to agree to that. “Some of the Ukraine money is not for defense; it’s humanitarian and all the rest of that. That comes out of the domestic side,” she said. “So we don’t want it coming out of either side.”
Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that Ukraine aid was settled, or soon would be. “We should probably have all of that done today, because we have to be on schedule for the omnibus,” she said, adding that tacking the Ukraine bill onto the omnibus spending bill was “the fastest thing. […] It’s the vehicle that’s leaving the station.” She was firm in insisting that the spending bill would be done and Congress won’t revert to yet another stop-gap funding bill, a continuing resolution (CR). “We would never have another CR,” she said. “No, we’re way down the road on that.”
But it’s not at all clear that Republicans are on the same page. On Thursday, Sen. Richard Shelby (AL), the ranking Republican on Appropriations Committee, raised a renewed objection over the accompanying coronavirus money. He’s opposing it, saying he wants a full accounting of how much unspent funding from previous COVID-19 packages is available.
On Thursday, Pelosi insisted that money will stay in, saying “the $22 billion... is absolutely necessary. In fact, we probably will need more as we need more therapies.”
So, impasse. Republicans are throwing up roadblock after roadblock to finally and permanently funding the last six months of this fiscal year’s government operations. The government is still operating, in fact, on the budget agreement passed for FY2021 back in Dec. 2020. Since that expired last September, Republicans have only allowed continuing resolutions, and those they’ve stretched out to the last possible moment. They’ve played with government shutdown every time and have expressly said that some in their ranks want to force Biden to operate under the last Trump budget until the midterms.
It seems that Republicans want to keep it that way for as long as possible. The excuses they’re coming up with for delaying passage of this omnibus bill—which they have been dragging out for months—get more and more ridiculous. Take this new demand from Louisiana Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, who say their request for $2 billion in disaster aid from last year's hurricanes is being ignored.
That’s news to Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, (D-VT), who says the two senators have never talked to him about that request. “They haven’t said a word to me about it, so I don’t know what to say,” he told Roll Call.
McConnell’s gambit seems to be trying to force yet another stop-gap spending bill, and tack onto it the emergency funding for Ukraine, which they are trying to decouple from the coronavirus funding.
It also seems likely that they’re going to take this down to the March 11 wire. While Ukraine is burning and millions of its people are displaced.