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Senate approves $40 billion package to help Ukraine fight off Russian invasion

Employees and volunteers help pack and sort humanitarian aid donations to be shipped to Ukraine at Meest-America, Inc warehouse in Port Reading, New Jersey, on March 8, 2022.
ANGELA WEISS
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AFP via Getty Images
Employees and volunteers help pack and sort humanitarian aid donations to be shipped to Ukraine at Meest-America, Inc warehouse in Port Reading, New Jersey, on March 8, 2022.

Updated May 19, 2022 at 1:35 PM ET

The Senate voted 86 to 11 to approve roughly $40 billion in new aid to Ukraine. The bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month, brings U.S. spending on the war to more than $100 million per day, according to defense experts.

The legislation is the latest step in a bipartisan effort to help Ukraine repel Russia's invasion without committing U.S. troops to a deadly war across the globe. Those investments have focused on sending direct military assistance, humanitarian aid and funding to help combat Russian propaganda and cybersecurity attacks.

"The bill provides $40.1 billion in critical military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, to help defend Ukraine's sovereignty and democracy abroad, and to address the rising global hunger crisis," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in a speech ahead of the vote.

That includes $8.5 billion the president can spend on weapons transfers, $8.5 billion for an economic support fund for emerging needs in Ukraine, and more than $5 billion for global food aid, according to Leahy.

Despite the overwhelming bipartisan support, the Senate vote was delayed several days after Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY., raised objections to the oversight process for what is on track to be one of the biggest foreign aid expenditures in recent history. Paul sought the assignment of an independent inspector general to keep watch over the Ukraine spending.

Paul said he has sympathy and support for the cause of funding Ukraine, but that the large package is not fiscally responsible. He suggested taking the funding from the existing military budget.

"If Congress were honest they'd take the money from elsewhere in the budget or ask Americans to pay higher taxes," Paul said in a speech this week. "Or, heaven forbid, Congress would loan the money to Ukraine."

White House officials say they have nearly exhausted the roughly $13.6 billion Congress approved for the war two months ago.

Like that earlier funding, the bulk of the money approved on Thursday is intended to provide military hardware and support for Ukraine through at least the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

Congress quickly approved funds in March as emergency spending with broad guidelines for dividing the money between military, operational and humanitarian aid. President Biden warned earlier this month that flow of assistance would stop this week without action from Congress.

While there has been broad bipartisan support for the spending so far, some lawmakers are raising concerns about making sure the aid is directly tailored to Ukraine's needs.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for International and Strategic Studies, said the United States is sending funds to the country at a rate that hasn't been seen in decades.

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"Before the war the U.S. was sending $300 million per year to Ukraine," he said. "Now, we're providing $100 million a day."

Cancian said that comparing the spending on helping Ukraine to the price tag of other recent conflicts is nearly impossible because the United States — like its allies — is sending money directly to one side of the conflict without committing any troops. Recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also involved thousands of troops and money for a vast U.S. military presence in the region.

New funding for a new phase of the war

The latest spending bill has some fresh spending directions but still gives the White House and agencies like the State Department and Department of Defense wide latitude to shift money around as needs arise on the ground in Ukraine. That approach is common when Congress is trying to fund the response to a rapidly evolving conflict.

More than $15 billion of the funding is dedicated to the very broad category of Defense-wide operations and maintenance, with the directive that the money be available through September 30 of this year. That money is separate from operations and maintenance funding for individual branches of the military.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) departs from the Senate Republicans' daily luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Building on May 05, 2022 in Washington, DC. Paul had sought to establish oversight of how Ukraine aid funds are spent.
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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) departs from the Senate Republicans' daily luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Building on May 05, 2022 in Washington, DC. Paul had sought to establish oversight of how Ukraine aid funds are spent.

The latest bill also shifts how some of the humanitarian aid will be spent. Roughly $8.7 billion is allocated to an economic support fund that can be spent through September 30, 2024. That money comes with instructions to make portions of the money available for distributing food aid and combating human trafficking.

The new bill also has more specific funding for migration and refugee assistance that can be spent to assist groups across Eastern Europe.

Those changes are a direct response to dire warnings about scarce food within Ukraine and a looming refugee crisis in nearby countries.

Sending aid without troops and administrators can be risky

Experts and lawmakers say sending money and supplies without also sending fully trained troops to manage them carries some risk. Ukrainian troops are being flooded with military equipment from several different countries, all with different training procedures, operations and uses.

Humanitarian organizations face similar concerns. Groups are rushing to help find housing for refugees, send food to embattled regions and provide medical aid to those under attack. Some Republicans have raised concerns that the groups administering that support haven't been able to keep up with the supplies they are being sent.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said it is important to make sure the money is meeting what Ukraine needs in the moment.

"Their burn rate with lethal aid has been high, as long as we're providing them what they actually need and can use," Ernst said. "And then when it comes to humanitarian supplies, we need to make sure it's what they can use in the specific areas that need it."

Others, like Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., shared similar questions ahead of a meeting with Oksana Markarova, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, on May 10.

"I don't have any concern at all about the military funding," Blunt said. "I am concerned that we are sure that they can handle that much aid."

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is surrounded by reporters as he walks on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 10, 2022.
Mariam Zuhaib / AP
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AP
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is surrounded by reporters as he walks on Capitol Hill in May 2022.

Ernst and Blunt, both members of Senate Republican leadership, said later that Markarova provided detailed explanations of how direct aid to Ukraine's government has been spent.

"I was very satisfied with her explanation of how they dealt with the first $1 billion of aid," Blunt said. "They've got extraordinary expenses but they don't have very much money coming in. The tax collection system in a situation like this doesn't work well at all."

Ernst said Ukraine has very specific needs when it comes to food. The country, a major agricultural exporter to Europe, the Middle East and Africa, faces serious challenges to planting, harvesting and shipping this year.

Ernst said there are additional challenges getting food to war-torn parts of the country. Congress approved $100 million in food aid in March but Ernst said none of it has been disbursed, in part because of shipping challenges.

"It has not gone anywhere," she said. "What we are hearing is that those shipping costs are actually more than the food is worth."

Hard to know exactly how the money is being spent

The format of the funding makes it difficult for the public, or for lawmakers, to know exactly how the money is being spent.

The March round of money was approved as an emergency spending package that was attached to a broader spending bill. Emergency funds do not need to be offset with spending cuts or tax increases and do not have an impact on funding for other government programs. Congress commonly uses emergency spending packages to fund responses to natural disasters and international emergencies and defense operations — including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Like most other emergency funds, it was structured to give government agencies, or the military, flexibility to shift spending priorities with few specific restrictions outside of designating the money to address the war in Ukraine.

The bill provided roughly $4 billion to assist people displaced within Ukraine, more than $2.5 billion for food and health care support and $1.4 billion is intended for additional migration and refugee assistance.

The military aid section included $3.5 billion for defense-wide operations and maintenance and granted Biden the authority to transfer an additional $3 billion in defense equipment to Ukraine. General defense funding included $650 million for grants or direct loans.

The White House and State Department have provided periodic updates when the administration draws new money from the funds Congress has allocated.

In March, days after the first round of aid was approved, the White House gave details of how $800 million of the funds had been spent. They listed:

  • 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems;
  • 2,000 Javelin, 1,000 light anti-armor weapons and 6,000 AT-4 anti-armor systems;
  • 100 Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems;
  • 100 grenade launchers, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns and 400 shotguns;
  • Over 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition and grenade launcher and mortar rounds;
  • 25,000 sets of body armor; and
  • 25,000 helmets.
  • Later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released information on $150 million in arms and equipment from the Department of Defense that was to be sent in May. At the time, the government said it was the ninth round of such spending, with a total cost of $3.8 billion.

    "We will continue to provide Ukraine the arms its forces are effectively using to defend their country and the freedom of their fellow citizens," Blinken said in a statement. "In addition to military assistance, we also continue to provide direct U.S. financial support to Ukraine, support for documenting evidence of Russia's atrocities against Ukraine's civilians, and measures to continue ratcheting up the pressure on Putin's crumbling economy."

    Cancian of CSIS said it is normal for the government to give sparse details on how funding is being spent in a conflict.

    "This is all about operational security," he said. "They are in a war and the administration is reluctant to put out too much information about what capabilities the Ukrainians have."

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.