WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has nearly run out of authority to continue sending highly sought-after U.S. military aid to Ukraine, and partisanship in Congress threatens to hold up swift passage of a bill for additional assistance.
An official from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget told Defense News that Biden only has approximately $250 million in spending authority left out of the $3.5 billion that Congress authorized for the president to use in transferring military equipment to Ukraine from U.S. stockpiles.
That leaves Congress with a limited amount of time to pass an additional Ukraine aid supplemental, but the intricate politics of a sharply divided Senate could draw out final passage of the package.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., intimated after the Democratic Caucus’ weekly luncheon on Tuesday that he would double down on his proposal from earlier this month to pair an additional Ukraine assistance supplemental with an international COVID-19 aid package, which Republicans previously held up.
Asked by Defense News about the pairing plan, Schumer said COVID-19 aid is “very, very important.”
“I would urge our Republican colleagues to pass COVID relief ASAP,” Schumer said. “It’s very risky for the health of the American people for them to be playing political games with it.”
But immediately after, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters that his party would likely continue to hold up passage on coronavirus relief package — and by extension any potential Ukraine supplemental included in that legislation — unless they get votes on blocking Biden’s reported plans to repeal a pandemic-related immigration provision known as Title 42.
“Senate Republicans are going to insist on having an amendment to Title 42 because it’s extremely important,” McConnell told reporters after a Republican Caucus luncheon. “I’m going to make it clear to you, and to the majority leader, that we’ll need to have a Title 42 vote at some point here — in all likelihood on the COVID package.”
Biden said at the White House last week he’s “almost exhausted” the drawdown authority he has from Congress to continue supplying aid to Ukraine. The Defense Department is still formulating the exact dollar amount it might need to continue rapidly furnishing aid to Ukraine.
The Defense Department received $6.5 billion in FY22 Ukraine funding. It has spent $961 million of the $3 billion provided for U.S. deployments to Europe and $2 billion of the $3.5 billion received to replenish DoD equipment stocks through Biden’s presidential authority to draw from U.S. military stockpiles, DoD spokesman Lt. Cdr. Tim Gorman said in an email to Defense News.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal visited the White House and met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week to ask for additional military aid as well as funding for humanitarian and demining operations.
The dwindling Ukraine funds leave very little margin for error in the notoriously slow-moving Senate. But Schumer’s remarks gave no indication Biden’s urgent request for a new Ukraine aid package last week has altered his political calculus on pairing it with global pandemic aid and the politically thorny immigration issue that Republicans have linked with the COVID-19 package.
It’s also unclear whether the Biden administration favors a stand-alone Ukraine aid package or pairing it with global COVID-19 assistance. Asked Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the answer hinges on forthcoming conversations with Congress.
“We don’t have the mechanism yet,” she told reporters.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the defense spending panel, speculated the Ukraine supplemental would ultimately pass as a stand-alone bill. Asked whether he prefers Schumer’s pairing approach, he said: “I don’t care. I think we just need to get it done.”
Last month, Washington finalized the fiscal 2022 $1.5 trillion spending bill, which provides $13.6 billion in new aid for the Ukraine crisis. The money was in large part to restore military stocks of equipment already transferred to Ukrainian military units through the president’s drawdown authority.
In the meantime, the House plans later this week to vote on a bill that could help furnish additional military equipment to Ukraine.
The Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act, which the Senate unanimously passed earlier this month, would waive statutory requirements that currently govern Biden’s ability to loan military equipment to Kyiv under the World War II-era lend-lease program.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and national security in Washington since 2014. He previously wrote for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.