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McConnell, Zelensky and Schumer in Capitol

Senators eye new funding strategy

Key senators are preparing a major shift in their short-term government funding strategy, leaving aside Ukraine aid but presenting Speaker Kevin McCarthy with a set of new challenges.

Senate leaders and senior appropriators are eyeing passing a clean stopgap spending bill by the end of the week. The measure would fund federal agencies at current levels for another 45 days but would include little or no new cash for Ukraine or disaster relief. The usual caveats apply here. Nothing is final until it’s final, and everything is still in flux.

The White House is pushing the Senate to include 45 days worth of Ukraine aid and some disaster money, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The Senate leadership’s goal is to pass something that McCarthy can reasonably put on the floor to avert an Oct. 1 shutdown. However, this plan would require House Democratic votes for passage. That risks a rebellion from McCarthy’s right flank, which has voiced staunch opposition to a clean CR.

It’s tough to overstate the jam McCarthy would be in here. The Senate’s CR would almost certainly pass with a large bipartisan majority. But putting this measure on the House floor could easily push conservative hardliners into trying to oust McCarthy.

This may look like a lifeline for McCarthy — and, under normal circumstances, it would be. But some in his conference will see putting this proposal on the floor as a betrayal. Others have softened their opposition to a stopgap measure if the bill cuts spending or includes provisions to secure the border. A clean CR will do none of that.

But the big news here is that Congress could be trying to punt the Ukraine fight until at least November, when lawmakers would likely have to enact another CR to buy more time to pass FY2024 appropriations bills.

The Republican Party’s warring factions will have to hash it out on Ukraine eventually. It might not be this time — and won’t be the reason for a shutdown — if the Senate leadership’s current thinking wins out. The Senate’s shift was first reported by our friends Burgess Everett and Daniella Diaz of Politico.

House GOP leaders reacted cautiously on Monday to the Senate’s new CR approach. McCarthy has said publicly that he wouldn’t put any CR on the floor that includes billions of dollars in new Ukraine aid, meaning that if the Senate passed such legislation, it would guarantee a shutdown.

McCarthy and his leadership team face a key procedural vote on Tuesday for a four-bill appropriations package, including the mammoth Defense bill. Senior aides believe Republicans can pass this rule, which would be a welcome development for the GOP leadership after two failed rule votes last week.

McCarthy has said he wants to pass these four spending bills and then vote on a CR later in the week. But the Republican CR that McCarthy wants to move includes spending cuts and a border security bill that’s a non-starter for the Senate and the White House.

If you’re a Ukraine supporter, punting this issue for a month or longer — when the White House is expected to request a full-year supplemental package for Ukraine and other priorities — seems, on its face, a risky bet.

That full-year request for Ukraine will obviously be much higher than the White House’s current $24 billion ask. If this amount is so difficult to approve, how could Congress possibly approve even more in a month?

The flip side: Could it actually be easier to pass Ukraine aid in November? That seems to be what Senate leaders are banking on. Approving $24 billion now, and then forcing McCarthy to hold a vote on a much larger package at some other date, would be a tougher sell, they reason.

So it might be better to jam through a massive package that would fund Ukraine through the 2024 presidential election, for example, meaning McCarthy only has to do this once. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has been pushing for this approach.

And there are already several roadblocks for Ukraine funding this time around that would essentially guarantee a shutdown, even a brief one. Chief among them is Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) vow to slow down the process for any CR that includes Ukraine aid. The result of this could be to force Hill leaders to decide between funding the government and funding Ukraine, which would be a no-win situation politically.

However, this still means that Ukraine has no certainty from the United States about its funding priorities for the moment. Remember Biden’s oft-repeated line that the West will be there to help Ukraine for “as long as it takes?” As we wrote in July at the NATO summit, the real answer is “as long as Congress says.”

The White House, meanwhile, said it’s still pushing hard on Ukraine aid. In a statement, an OMB spokesperson said the Biden administration “continues to work with members of both parties in the Senate and the House to secure supplemental funding as part of any continuing resolution.”

An administration official noted that the White House’s $24 billion request covered a three-month period through the end of 2023, and the CRs under consideration by Congress are obviously shorter than that.

— Andrew Desiderio, John Bresnahan and Jake Sherman

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