WASHINGTON - The Senate overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion infusion of military and economic aid for Ukraine and its allies on Thursday as both parties rallied behind America’s latest, and quite possibly not last, financial salvo against Russia’s invasion.
The 86-11 vote gave final congressional approval to the package, three weeks after President Joe Biden requested a smaller $33 billion version and after a lone Republican opponent delayed Senate passage for a week. Every Democrat and all but 11 Republicans — many of them supporters of former President Donald Trump's isolationist agenda — backed the measure.
Biden’s quick signature was certain as Russia’s attack, which has mauled Ukraine’s forces and cities, slogs into a fourth month with no obvious end ahead. That means more casualties and destruction in Ukraine, which has relied heavily on U.S. and Western assistance for its survival, especially advanced arms, with requests for more aid potentially looming.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks to the press at the U.S. Capitol on March 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
"Help is on the way, really significant help. Help that could make sure that the Ukrainians are victorious," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., underscoring a goal by Ukraine and its allies that seemed nearly unthinkable when Russia launched its brutal assault three months ago.
The vote was a glaring exception to the partisan divisions that have hindered work on other issues under Biden and that promise to become only less bridgeable as November's elections for control of Congress draw closer. That includes Republicans blocking Democrats from including billions to combat the relentless pandemic in the measure, leaving their efforts to battle COVID-19 in limbo.
Last week the House approved the Ukraine bill 368-57, with all of those opposed Republicans. Though support in both chambers was unmistakably bipartisan, the GOP defections were noteworthy after Trump, still a potent force in the party, complained that such sums should first be targeted at domestic problems.
Schumer called it "beyond troubling" that Republicans were opposing the Ukraine assistance. "It appears more and more that MAGA Republicans are on the same soft-on-Putin playbook that we saw used by former President Trump," said Schumer, using the Make America Great Again acronym Democrats have been using to cast those Republicans as extremists.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a strong backer of the measure, addressed concerns by his GOP colleagues. He said Ukraine’s defeat would jeopardize America’s European trading partners, increase U.S. security costs there and embolden autocrats in China and elsewhere to grab territory in their regions.
"The most expensive and painful thing America could possibly do in the long run would be to stop investing in sovereignty, stability and deterrence before it’s too late," McConnell said.
On Wednesday, Schumer said he was not confident this would be the final measure to help Ukraine. "They’re doing the fighting, they’re the ones getting killed, they’re the ones struggling and suffering. The least we can do is give them the weaponry they need," he said.
The legislation contains around $24 billion for weapons, equipment and military financing for Ukraine, restoring Pentagon stocks of arms sent to the region and paying for U.S. reinforcements sent there. The rest includes economic aid to keep Zelenskyy’s government functioning, food programs for countries that rely on Ukraine’s diminished crop production, refugee assistance and funds for Kyiv to investigate Russian war crimes.
Congress approved an initial $13.6 billion measure in March. The combined price tag of nearly $54 billion exceeds what the U.S. spent on all its foreign and military aid in 2019, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who’s long had non-interventionist views, used procedural tactics last week to thwart Schumer and McConnell from moving the measure through the Senate then, citing Ukraine's urgent need for the assistance.
In a personal criticism seen seldom on the Senate floor, Schumer on Wednesday called Paul’s move "repugnant" and said the delay, with passage inevitable, would "strengthen Putin’s hand." McConnell, who last Saturday met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a surprise visit to Kyiv, did not speak up in his fellow Kentucky Republican’s defense.
In a brief interview, Paul responded that it would be "repugnant" to disparage "the democratic process" as embodied in Senate rules that he was using.
That spending concerned some Trump-friendly Republicans in Congress on Wednesday.
"It’s, you know, the world’s going to end if you don’t do anything here," Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., who said he would oppose the Ukraine measure. "I’m more worried about the trust fund going broke" that finances Medicare and another that pays for Social Security.
Braun said he’s long pushed for bills that pay for themselves. Asked why saving $40 billion in this instance outweighed stopping Russia, he said, "Number one, it’s going to pass."
Another conservative, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that as costly as the measure is, the aid will protect U.S. national security and said, "If Putin wins, the consequences for America and American taxpayers will be hundreds of billions of dollars."
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a moderate who has clashed with Trump, said in an interview that helping Ukraine defend itself "is about as smart an investment as we could possibly make." He added, "What does America First mean? It means that we should first be concerned about the interests of America. I totally agree."