Image for Congress Eyes Action on COVID Funding, Ukraine Aid and China

Congress returns this week to face a hefty agenda that includes additional COVID-19 funding, more financial aid to war-torn Ukraine and legislation to address economic competition with China. Getting all that done won’t be a walk in the political park.

Biden is submitting this week a supplemental budget request to supply Ukraine with more heavy artillery, ammunition and other aid. The $13.6 billion that Congress approved last month has been nearly exhausted after Biden authorized around $1.6 billion for Ukraine over the last two weeks. There is bilateral support in Congress to bolster Ukraine’s ability to repel Russia’s invasion, which is now concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine and requires different kinds of defensive armaments.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met on Sunday in a Kyiv subway with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In remarks after the meeting, Austin said US and Western ally assistance to Ukraine’s defense is intended in part to weaken Russia’s military capabilities, an argument not made previously by the Biden administration, but which echoes concerns of other nations bordering Russia.

Before the April recess, there was tentative agreement on more COVID-19 funding, but it fell apart when Republicans and some Democrats demanded an amendment to block Biden’s reversal of Title 42, which was imposed by former President Trump during the pandemic to block asylum-seekers from entering the United States for public health reasons. With pandemic restrictions easing, Biden signaled it’s time to remove the restriction.

Congressman Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, along with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and other congressional Republicans, met with local officials in Eagle Pass, Texas, to discuss a potential surge of asylum-seekers if President Biden reverses a Trump-era ruling that kept immigrants in Mexico for public health reasons during the pandemic.

A delegation of congressional Republicans, led by House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, staged a press event on Sunday at Eagle Pass, Texas to protest Biden’s decision on Title 42. Several border-state Democrats who face tough re-election bids this fall also have questioned Biden’s decision and timing, saying reversal of Title 42 could lead to a surge of immigration that US official border officials are unprepared to handle.

Dr. Ashish Jha, the new White House coronavirus czar, suggested in an interview on NPR the Biden administration may seek more than the $10 billion for COVID-19 funding agreed to in the pre-recess compromise. Jha said the original request of $22 billion is needed to acquire newly available antivirals, which were authorized in December, and next-generation vaccines, which are both likely to be needed for a resurgent wave of infections this fall.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is proposing to combine supplemental COVID-19 spending and Ukrainian military and humanitarian aid into a single legislative vehicle. It also might include financial aid for pandemic-battered restaurants and other small businesses, which are experiencing slower economic recovery than other sectors. The sponsors, Senators Ben Cardin, D-New Jersey, and Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, want to offset the cost of the aid using unspent portion of the Paycheck Protection Program.

Finding additional budget offsets for a larger, combined spending measure may prove more difficult and pose yet another obstacle to bipartisan support.

US-China Competition

The House and Senate will soon begin negotiations to finalize a deal on far-reaching China competitiveness legislation known variously as USICA, the “Endless Frontier Act,” the “America COMPETES Act” and the Bipartisan Innovation Act. The Senate could formalize its conferees this week to begin negotiations on a final package. 

Negotiations will not be simple. The package falls under the jurisdiction of multiple committees. There are more than 100 conferees combined from both chambers, with tens of billions of dollars at stake amid a frenzy of lobbying activity. The conference negotiations will be a complex process, to say the least.

Whatever the final product, it is expected to include the CHIPS Act and its roughly $52 billion in funding to incentivize domestic semiconductor chip manufacturing, which is the most popular provision in the package. However, compromise needs to be reached on major trade policy sticking points such as trade adjustment assistance for displaced workers and tariffs on Chinese goods. 

The final product is expected to include the CHIPS Act and its roughly $52 billion in funding to incentivize domestic semiconductor chip manufacturing.

The prevailing mindset among lawmakers and staff from both sides of the aisle is that everyone wants a deal. There’s not an adversarial tone between Senate Democrats and Republicans leading negotiations, at least not right now. Preliminary discussions took place between party leaders’ aids during the two-week break, but those talks will pick up this week and next when negotiations formally get underway.

Biden on the Road

Biden has been on the road, including stops last week in Oregon and Washington, to tout his administration’s achievements and stump for Democratic congressional candidates amid predictions of Republicans reclaiming control of the House and possibly the Senate in the mid-term election this fall.

On the stump, Biden talks about how the American Rescue Plan aid economic recovery and the projects that will be funded in each state with resources from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment package he championed.

The President also addresses inflation, which polling indicates is a top voter concern, saying the economy recovered faster than producers and supply chains could keep up. He says Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s zero tolerance policy on COVID-19 that has closed major cities such as Shanghai has aggravated an already precarious situation.