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The Senate votes to begin working on a last-ditch effort to approve funds for Ukraine and Israel

By STEPHEN GROVES, MARY CLARE JALONICK, and LISA MASCARO, Associated Press
Published: February 8, 2024, 9:55am

WASHINGTON (AP) — Overcoming a week of setbacks, the Senate on Thursday voted to begin work on a package of wartime funding for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies. But doubts remained about support from Republicans who earlier rejected a carefully negotiated compromise that also included border enforcement policies.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the latest vote a “good first step” and pledged that the Senate would “keep working on this bill — until the job is done.”

The 67-32 vote was the first meaningful step Congress has taken in months to approve Ukraine aid, but it still faces a difficult path through Congress. Support from GOP senators for final passage is not guaranteed, and even if the legislation passes the Senate, it is expected to be more difficult to win approval in the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., has been noncommittal on the aid.

The Senate prepared for a days-long slog to reach a final vote, and leaders had not agreed to a process to limit the debate time for the bill as Republicans remained divided on how to approach the legislation.

The $95 billion package is intended to show American strength at a time when U.S. military troops have been attacked and killed in Jordan, allies like Ukraine and Israel are deep in war and unrest threatens to shake the global order. It is also the best chance for Congress to replenish completely depleted military aid for Ukraine — a goal shared by President Joe Biden, Schumer and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

After the collapse this week of a bipartisan agreement to include border policy changes in the package, Schumer salvaged $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, as well as roughly $35 billion for Israel, other allies and national security priorities in the current legislation.

But Senate Republicans were fractured and frustrated as they huddled Thursday morning to discuss their approach to the legislation and struggled to coalesce behind a plan to assert their priorities. Still, Schumer forged ahead to the noon-hour vote, essentially daring the Ukraine supporters within the GOP to vote against the aid.

Schumer’s push worked as the vote to begin debate on the new package cleared with 17 Republicans along with Democrats voting to move forward. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who opposes much of the aid for Israel, voted against it.

Some in the Senate vowed to do everything they could to delay final action.

“I’ll object to anything speeding up this rotten foreign spending bill’s passage,” said Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, on X.

The U.S. is already out of money to send missiles and ammunition to Kyiv, just as the nearly two-year-old war reaches a crucial juncture. Ukraine supporters say the drop-off in U.S. support is already being felt on the battlefield and by civilians. Russia has renewed its commitment to the invasion with relentless attacks.

“There are people in Ukraine right now, in the height of their winter, in trenches, being bombed and being killed,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.

While military support for Ukraine once enjoyed wide bipartisan support in Congress, an increasing number of Republicans in the House and Senate have expressed serious reservations about supporting a new round of funding for Ukraine. Following the lead of Donald Trump, the likely GOP presidential nominee, they see the funding as wasteful and argue that an end to the conflict should be negotiated.

Biden has made halting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion a top foreign policy priority and last year requested a sweeping funding proposal to replenish aid for Ukraine and Israel, as well as to invest more in domestic defense manufacturing, humanitarian assistance and managing the influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The $95 billion package package proposed by Democrats this week would send $14 billion in military aid to Israel, provide further funding for allies in Asia, and allot $10 billion for humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza and other places.

The revamped package includes legislation to authorize sanctions and anti-money laundering tools against criminal enterprises that traffic fentanyl into the U.S.

Supporters of the national security package have cast it as a history-turning initiative that would rebuff both Russia’s incursion in Europe and Chinese president Xi Jinping’s ambitions in Taiwan and Asia.

“Failure to pass this bill would only embolden autocrats like Putin and Xi who want nothing more than America’s decline,” Schumer said.

Republicans had initially demanded that the package also include border policy changes, arguing that they would not support other countries’ security when the U.S. border was seeing rampant illegal crossings. But after months of round-the-clock negotiations on a bipartisan compromise intended to overhaul the asylum system with faster and tougher enforcement, Republicans rejected it as insufficient.

Still, some senators said they would continue to insist on tying border measures — this time even more strict — to the foreign aid.

“My priority is border security. It’s always been border security. I think we need a new bill,” said Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan.

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