Congress Races to Finalize Ukraine Aid, Spending Bill

Congress Races to Finalize Ukraine Aid, Spending Bill

Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA

A bipartisan group of lawmakers announced Monday that they had reached a deal on legislation to ban Russian energy imports and suspend normal trade relations with Russia and its ally, Belarus.

“Taking these actions will send a clear message to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that his war is unacceptable and the United States stands firmly with our NATO allies,” the lawmakers overseeing U.S. trade policy said in a joint statement cited by The Washington Post. Reps. Richard Neal (D-MA) and Kevin Brady (R-TX), the top Democrat and Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, signed the statement, as did Sens. Ron Wyden (D-WA) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), the top lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee.

The draft legislation, aimed at further punishing Russia for its aggression, would also enable President Joe Biden to raise tariffs on products from both Russia and Belarus. The House reportedly could vote on the plan as soon as Wednesday.

Gas prices surge to record high: A further crackdown on Russian energy imports could have repercussions for American consumers, who have already seen gas prices surge by 49 cents a gallon in the last week, reaching a new record national average of $4.10 a gallon, topping a previous high set in 2008, according to analysis service GasBuddy. “Although the United States imports just 7 percent of its oil from Russia, the administration has so far avoided banning imports, in part because of worries that it would further accelerate already-high gas prices,” The New York Times notes.

In a letter to colleague Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi emphasized that lawmakers would look for ways to rein in rising prices. “Let me be clear: the United States need not choose between our democratic values and our economic interests,” she wrote. “The Administration and the Congress remain laser-focused on bringing down the higher energy costs for American families and our partners stemming from Putin’s invasion.”

Still, GasBuddy’s head of petroleum analysis, Patrick De Haan, said in a statement that the unprecedented price spike affecting all fuels isn’t likely to improve any time soon: “The high prices are likely to stick around for not days or weeks, like they did in 2008, but months. GasBuddy now expects the yearly national average to rise to its highest ever recorded.”

$10 billion in aid for Ukraine tied to funding bill facing Friday deadline: Lawmakers reportedly are also expected to announce an agreement to provide the $10 billion that the White House requested for humanitarian, military and economic aid to Ukraine and refugees fleeing the crisis.

That aid would be added to the $1.5 trillion government funding bill covering the rest of this fiscal year. Congress needs to pass that package or another stopgap measure to avoid a government shutdown after current funding expires Friday night.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Monday that Democrats had made Republicans a "global offer" on the spending package.

“We have been working on a bipartisan, bicameral basis through the weekend to finish work on an omnibus package that includes robust assistance to the people and government of Ukraine and additional funds to ensure our country is prepared if and when the next COVID variant strikes,” he wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter. “Democrats have made a reasonable global offer to Republicans and it is my hope that we will reach an agreement very soon so that we can meet the March 11 government funding deadline.”

The push to pass the funding bill by Friday could be complicated by the House’s planned 3-day policy retreat starting Wednesday — and by a group of Senate Republicans who are again demanding a vote on defunding Biden’s vaccine mandates before they’ll agree to speed the process on the annual spending legislation. Those demands on previous spending bills resulted in failed votes on the vaccine amendment.

Democrats look to show they’re fighting inflation: With consumer prices rising at the fastest rate in 40 years, Schumer also announced in his letter that Democrats would hold a series of hearings on proposals to cut costs for American families, starting with a Senate Finance Committee session next week on prescription drug prices. “Our goal is to have the wages that have increased continue to go up and see costs go down so the average American has more money in their pocket,” Schumer wrote.

The bottom line: This week’s race to pass a spending deal by Friday appears on track, with lawmakers reportedly expressing confidence that another stopgap “continuing resolution” won’t be needed. The stickiest sticking point may by additional emergency pandemic funding, with Republicans skeptical of the White House request for an additional $22.5 billion and pressing to fully offset whatever amount is provided.