WASHINGTON ― Congress on Saturday passed a short-term funding bill to avoid a government shutdown mere hours before the deadline and after lawmakers dropped additional support for Ukraine from the bill.
After trying and failing to pass a Republican measure that would slash non-defense spending and enact strict immigration policies, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., reversed course on early Saturday morning and offered a stopgap funding bill similar to the bipartisan Senate version – minus $6 billion in Ukraine aid.
This ensures troops and Defense Department employees will continue receiving their paychecks and avoids furloughing hundreds of thousands of the department’s civilian workers. However, it raises questions about Congress’ ability to pass additional Ukraine assistance only a week after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Capitol Hill in a direct appeal to lawmakers, warning that his country would lose the war without more support.
The House passed the stopgap measure to fund the government through November 17 in a 335-91 vote. The Senate then passed it in an 88-9 vote.
The Defense Department no longer has funds for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and the $1.5 billion it has left to backfill U.S. stockpiles of weapons that have been sent to Kyiv expires on September 30. The Pentagon says that a previous accounting error means it has approximately $5.5 billion in funds to keep transferring weapons to Ukraine past the end of the fiscal year.
The White House in August asked Congress for an additional $24 billion in additional military and economic aid to Ukraine. But even in the Senate, where Ukraine enjoys broad bipartisan support, appropriators scaled that back to $6 billion.
That amount included $1.5 billion in replenishment funds to backfill U.S. stocks and another $1.5 billion for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which allows the Pentagon to place contracts for defense manufacturers to build weapons systems for Kyiv over the longer-term.
But even an extra $6 billion for Ukraine proved to be too high a bar for McCarthy. While a strong, bipartisan majority of the House still supports Ukraine aid, roughly half the House Republican caucus now opposes it.
House Republican leaders had to strip a separate $300 million in Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funding from the defense spending bill on Thursday in order to pass that legislation largely along party lines. The House then voted 311-117 to send that $300 million in Ukraine funding separately to the Senate. Dozens more Republicans who had previously voted to preserve that funding in July reversed course and voted against it on Thursday.
Dropping the Ukraine aid also allowed the Senate to expeditiously pass the stopgap funding bill. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., had spent the past week delaying votes on the bill to protest the Ukraine aid, but dropped his hold after its removal.
Congress has passed a cumulative $113 billion in economic and security assistance for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last year.
While a shutdown would have been the worst-case scenario for the Defense Department, short-term funding bills still impose considerable constraints.
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti testified before Congress in September that the Navy will not be able to proceed with procurement on four of its six shipbuilding programs until Congress passes a full fiscal 2024 defense spending bill. Those programs are the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the Virginia-class attack submarine, the Constellation-class frigate and a submarine tender replacement.
The stopgap funding bill includes a carveout that would allow the Navy to procure the Columbia-class submarine – but not the other ships – before Congress approves a full budget.
If Congress fails to pass a full budget by the next calendar year, the May debt ceiling agreement mandates that all federal agencies – including the Defense Department – operate on a one-year continuing resolution with a 1% cut for the rest of FY24.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.