WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s request for more than $47 billion in emergency funding to help Ukraine and tackle COVID-19, monkeypox and natural disasters is encountering deep skepticism from Senate Republicans, signaling a showdown ahead.
The early resistance on the size and scope of the spending request points to the fraught negotiations to come as Congress labors to pass a stopgap spending bill that would keep the federal government running past Oct. 1 or risk a federal shutdown.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that while Ukraine aid “is obviously a priority,” he downplayed the need for other funding — even in his Kentucky home state hit hard by devastating floods.
“It’s a big ask without much explanation,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of GOP leadership.
Lawmakers are eager to avoid another government shutdown just weeks before November’s midterm election when voters will decide which party controls Congress. But their plan to pass a short-term bill to keep government funded could run into trouble unless the parties can strike an agreement on what additional priorities, if any, should be included.
The budget showdown is fast emerging as a showcase for party priorities at home and abroad that will define the lawmakers as they face voters in the fall.
The White House request includes $11.7 billion for security and economic assistance for Ukraine, on top of some $40 billion Congress has already approved to help the country battle’s Russia’s invasion. Closer to home, the Biden administration is seeking $22 billion to respond to COVID-19, and additional funds for monkeypox and natural disasters.
Republicans object to much of it.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., endorsed Biden’s request and said “it’s disgraceful that Republicans are playing political games with this.”
“Ukraine needs more help. We want to give it to them,” Schumer said Wednesday. “And on monkeypox and on COVID relief, we need to be prepared.”
This latest round of proposed funding for Ukraine comes as the country depends on support from the U.S. and allies in battling the Russian invasion.
The White House says more than three-quarters of the money approved for Ukraine has already been dispersed or committed, creating an urgent need for more.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has struck up relationships with members of Congress this year, many of whom have traveled to the region and rallied to his aid. Zelenskyy and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke earlier this week.
Republicans said they still support Ukraine and are open to more funding, but want more details about how the earlier money has been spent.
“I would be interested in why they feel this is an emergency, why they need to do it now, but certainly, I would not slow down our support for what Ukraine is doing," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
But few Republicans seemed willing to even entertain Biden's request for $22.4 billion in emergency funding to deal with COVID-19.
While the administration says the money is needed for additional COVID-19 vaccines, testing programs and research and development, Republicans say the federal spending on the virus needs to wind down, not ramp up.
Blunt said that people can pay for their vaccines like they pay for other aspects of their health care, and “there’s really no reason that the government should be paying for all of that.”
GOP lawmakers are sticking with the view that dedicating more money to the country’s COVID response should be paid for by cutting spending elsewhere.
“The problem is they want to keep spending more money and throw more gasoline on the inflation fire," Cornyn said. “I think that's a bad idea."
The White House is also asking for $4.5 billion to bolster efforts to fight monkeypox. Officials said they have already depleted significant reserves from the national stockpile to provide over 1.1 million vials of vaccine.
On disaster relief, the Biden administration is seeking about $6.5 billion to help states such as Kentucky recover from recent flooding. Aid would also help residents of California, Louisiana and Texas rebuild from major disasters.
Schumer also indicated that he supports adding a measure from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that is designed to speed up the permitting process for energy infrastructure projects. But including it could trigger opposition from House Democrats who see it as rushing projects to approval before the environmental ramifications are clear.
Still, there's wide agreement on both sides that even a temporary government shutdown before the election is out of the question.
Democrats want to keep the focus on legislative victories designed to bolster the country's infrastructure, semiconductor production and address climate change and health care costs. Republicans want voters to focus on inflation, gas prices and crime.
“There might be a couple of emergencies we're going to need to deal with, but my guess is that with an election coming, you won't see a lot of interesting brinksmanship," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.