Under the hood of Congress' $1.5T bill for Ukraine, pandemic, agencies

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., welcomes German Ambassador Emily Haber and other European diplomats to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, March 10, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., welcomes German Ambassador Emily Haber and other European diplomats to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, March 10, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Even for Congress, the $1.5 trillion price tag for its bipartisan package helping Ukraine and financing federal agencies for the last half of this year is a lot of money. And 2,741 pages is a long, long bill.

In fact, the measure and its cost are so daunting that it can be hard to digest. Here's a look at some of what's going on as the Senate prepares to send the legislation to President Joe Biden.

For Ukraine, a big number

The legislation, passed Wednesday by the House, would provide $13.6 billion to help Ukraine resist Russia's invasion and to buttress NATO allies worried about Russian President Vladimir Putin's next move.

There's money for weapons and equipment, for humanitarian aid for refugees and allied nations' economies, and for the U.S. costs of bolstering its military presence in the region. It's roughly evenly divided between defense and non-defense spending.

In the world of foreign aid, $13.6 billion is real money. By comparison, the measure also includes $3.3 billion in military assistance for Israel, long a top recipient of such help. There's $1.65 billion for Jordan and $1.3 billion for Egypt.

In another comparison, Russia, whose forces have been tromping through Ukraine and bombarding cities for two weeks, had a $62 billion military budget in 2020, according to the World Bank. Ukraine's was $6 billion.

Overall, annual U.S. foreign assistance for economic, military and humanitarian programs comes to around $50 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That's less than 1% of this year's federal budget, though it makes the U.S. the world's biggest provider of foreign aid.

Many in Washington think there will be more aid to Ukraine and Eastern Europe, though it's unclear when.

For now, no more pandemic money

Though White House officials initially told Congress that Biden wanted $30 billion more to continue battling COVID-19, a few days later he formally requested a scaled-back $22.5 billion. In bargaining over a final bill with skeptical Republicans, who said Congress had already spent enough, top Democrats settled for $15.6 billion.

But Wednesday, rank-and-file House Democrats rebelled against cuts Republicans had negotiated in previously approved pandemic aid for 30 states to help pay for the new spending. Rather than delaying the entire bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., removed all the pandemic funds. The number ended up at zero.

How to measure the potential impact of $15.6 billion?

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says the six COVID-19 relief bills enacted since March 2020 cost around $5.1 trillion. The $15.6 billion Democrats want is less than one-third of 1% of that total.

The White House's Office of Management and Budget, measuring the money differently, says $4.6 trillion has been provided to respond to the pandemic. It says of that, $4.2 trillion has been spent or formally committed to programs.

According to a Health and Human Services Department table, $370 billion of the total was specifically for public health initiatives like acquiring vaccines, testing and reimbursing health care providers. Of that, $355 billion has been spent or committed to contracts.

The $15.6 billion Democrats want would largely be for obtaining vaccines and drugs in preparation for any future variants or other pandemic needs, though some would be to help other countries. Republicans say there are plenty of unspent funds to draw on.

Democrats say they'll fight for the added funds in future bills. But Pelosi's willingness to lay the proposed COVID-19 money aside, even temporarily, suggests that with the omicron wave receding and voters exhausted from the two-year-old pandemic, the issue's political clout may be waning.

Earmarks are back

In 2011, Republicans ended Congress' practice of slipping projects requested by members for their districts into spending bills. The so-called earmarks were beloved by lawmakers eager to bestow them on constituents, and by party leaders as a way to finagle rank-and-file support for legislation.

But the practice had fallen into disrepute, especially among conservatives, as a symbol of wasteful spending that was steered by cronyism, not actual need.

This year, Democrats controlling Congress brought them back, rebranded as community projects and subject to tighter restrictions. They've proven extremely popular.

According to House figures, the expansive spending bill includes 2,021 of the projects worth $2.5 billion for the chamber's Democrats. Republicans got 706 of them, with a $1.7 billion price tag.

The Senate didn't immediately provide totals for its earmarks, but its tables listing senators' projects totaled 300 pages.

That included an unusually large $76 million for the medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The sponsor: that state's Sen. Richard Shelby, top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, who's retiring.

Another soon-to-be retiree, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Appropriations panel, had 11 projects for Vermont worth $27 million in just one section of the legislation.

Many lawmakers weren't shy and blasted out news of their achievements in press releases and tweets.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 House GOP leader, touted wins for her upstate New York district that included $27 million to improve Fort Drum's water supply. Liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said her 10 projects included $3 million to improve obstetrics facilities at a Queens hospital.

Congress' spending work, late again

Lawmakers are completing the 2022 spending package more than five months late. It was supposed to be finished by last Oct. 1, when the government's fiscal year began.

That seldom happens. The last time Congress enacted all its spending bills by then was in 1996, when the Senate finished its work on Sept. 30, the very last day of the budget year. Then-President Bill Clinton signed it that same day.

Even so, Congress has been slower than this before. Its worst performance came in 2017, when lawmakers didn't finish all their spending work until May.


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