Billings Gazette: Senate erupts over how to aid Ukraine, Tester, Daines split

by Tom Lutey

The Senate erupted into a shouting match Thursday over how to pass funding for Ukraine as a few Republicans, including Montana Sen. Steve Daines, attempted to carve the aid out of a must-pass spending bill due for a vote soon.

The debate livestreamed from the Senate floor turned heated when Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who earlier shepherded the defense package through committee, warned that what conservative lawmakers were attempting would push the Ukraine aid into the next week, not as Florida Sen. Rick Scott said, “send this to the president’s desk today.”

At issue is a $13.5 billion aid package for Ukraine, which includes $625 billion in defense spending. The aid package was tucked into a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund the federal government through Thursday. The omnibus bill was a must pass by midnight Friday, to keep the federal government from shutting down, something that hasn’t happened since the record shutdown of 2019.

But late Thursday, the emergency package of military and humanitarian aid for the besieged country and its European allies easily won final congressional approval, hitching a ride on a government-wide spending bill that’s five months late but loaded with political prizes for both parties.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion killing thousands and forcing over 2 million others to flee, the Senate approved the overall $1.5 trillion overall legislation by a 68-31 bipartisan margin.

Earlier in the evening, led by Sen. Scott, nine Republicans who were opposed to the omnibus spending bill, including Daines and Wyoming Sen. Cynthia Lummis, launched a plan to put the aid package to a stand-alone vote.

“What I’m asking is to pass the exact text, the exact text that both Democrats and Republicans have already agreed to,” Scott said. “We can send this to the President’s desk today.”

But Scott’s take was incorrect. No bill passes the Senate and heads straight to the president without also passing the House of Representatives. And the House had already gone home for the week, having passed the omnibus bill Thursday, with the Ukraine aid package included. The fast track to the president was for the Senate to pass the omnibus bill Thursday.

“The House is not in the session,” Tester fired back, in a blast best described as the Big Sandy edition of ‘Schoolhouse Rock.’ “To say that we’re going to pass this and presto chango that goes right to president’s desk, that’s not how the process works, Sen. Scott, that’s not how the process works.

“The good senator from Florida is blocking this bill, or we’d be voting on it right now,” Tester said. “You want to talk politics. That’s what this is about, politics.” Tester said. “You can be unhappy with the omnibus bill, but the matter has been negotiated over the last year by Democrats and Republicans. And that’s where we’re at today.

“We need to pass this bill. If you’re concerned about Ukraine, we need to pass this bill. If you’re concerned about feeding hungry people in this country, we need to pass this bill. If you’re concerned about child care, we need to pass this bill. If you’re concerned about housing, we need to pass this bill. If you’re concerned about the high cost of gasoline, we need to pass this bill. And if you’re concerned about the threat that China has to this country, we need to pass this bill. Enough excuses, let’s get the job done.”

The federal government has been running on borrowed time since the end of September 2021, with short-term funding approved through continuing resolutions. But congressional leaders had agreed back in December that by midnight March 11, there would be a bill passed to fund the government through the end of the federal fiscal year, which is in September.

Several Republicans objected to the size of the omnibus. Lummis produced a bill of special projects written into the bill by House lawmakers who last year brought back “member-directed spending.” Better known as earmarks, member-directed spending gave lawmakers the ability, for the first time since 2009, to direct spending on particular projects rather than allowing government agencies to do the choosing.

“After banning the practice for years, this omnibus contains around $10 billion in earmarks for pet projects around the country. Here’s the book of earmarks. Look how thick this is,” Lummis said, waiving a thick stack of pages. “It’s printed on both sides in about a four-point font. You almost have to have a looking glass to see what it says here, 4,000 earmarks after we’ve gotten away from this. I’m sympathetic to the argument that earmarks are a more direct way of addressing problems around the country, but historically they’ve been used as a way for leadership to whip votes on bad legislation and a way to fund unnecessary pet projects to curry favor back home.”

Lummis said adding the Ukraine aid package to the omnibus bill was a cynical way to assure the spending passed over the objections of opposing lawmakers.

“We should have a standalone vote on the aid for the people of Ukraine. This issue is entirely separate from the omnibus spending bill that Congress is considering and should be recognized as such on the Senate floor,” Lummis said. “Anything less does a disservice to the people we’re trying to help and to the American people we serve.”

Lummis reiterated Scott’s assurance the Ukraine aid package advance to the president without House approval.

“I want to be very, very clear on what this move would mean,” Tester responded. “If we don’t pass the rest of the omnibus, the Pentagon is going to shut down that night on Friday, OK? Now all our eyes are on Ukraine as they well should be. But don’t forget for a second that China is a pacing threat in this world. We’re going to shut the Pentagon down on Friday? I don’t think that’s a smart move.”

As soon as the effort to carve out the Ukraine aid package for a separate vote failed, Daines emailed the following statement.

“I’m disappointed to see my colleagues across the aisle choose politics over reason and block my bill that would have provided $14 billion in assistance to Ukraine in response to Russia’s ongoing invasion,” Daines said. He outlined the provisions in the standalone bill, which were the same terms as the aid in Ukraine.

Wednesday, U.S. Rep Matt Rosendale, a Montana Republican voted against the omnibus bill and by extension the aid package for Ukraine. Wednesday evening, Rosendale sent an email explaining his vote.

“This year’s omnibus spending package is just another wish list fulfilled for the Radical Left to expand the size of the federal government while ignoring the needs and priorities of Americans,” said Representative Rosendale. “It is far past time to rein in federal spending and start paying off our national debt, and the American taxpayer deserves a government that is fiscally responsible and prioritizes their needs.”