Ukraine again emerges as wedge issue, now on defense money bill

Controversial provisions in House measure could lead to presidential veto or the threat of one, senior GOP lawmaker says

Kay Granger of Texas, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, has expressed concern that President Donald Trump may threaten to veto the annual defense spending bill over the Ukraine issue.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Kay Granger of Texas, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, has expressed concern that President Donald Trump may threaten to veto the annual defense spending bill over the Ukraine issue. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 16, 2020 at 5:32pm

A House spending bill’s proposal to wrest from the White House control over aid money for Ukraine could jeopardize the annual defense spending bill, a senior GOP lawmaker said this week.

If it does, it would once again move the funding of far-off armies in Ukraine close to the center of politics in Washington. 

Kay Granger of Texas, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said during Tuesday’s markup of the nearly $695 billion draft defense money bill that she is concerned the Ukraine issue, in addition to three other hot-button topics, would draw a veto threat from President Donald Trump. 

Accordingly, Granger and all other Republicans on the panel voted against approving the bill, which passed only on the strength of the Democratic majority’s votes.

“We’ll have to drop or modify any controversial language that could jeopardize this bill’s chance of being signed into law,” Granger said. 

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Veto triggers

The House bill’s controversial provisions include several that could lead to a presidential veto, or at least the threat of one, Granger said.

These include the restrictions on using Defense Department money for border security construction work and limitations on reprogramming of any Pentagon funds, in the wake of Trump’s diversion of $10 billion in military money for the border barriers. 

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Another possible veto trigger is the bill’s proposed funding of a process for renaming military bases and other Defense Department assets that honor Confederates.

Yet the bill’s provision affecting appropriations for training and equipping Ukrainian forces withstanding a Russia-backed insurgency has attracted far less attention than these other topics. 

The bill would add Ukraine security assistance to the short list of federal programs that are exempt from control by the White House Office of Management and Budget. The aid is executed by the Pentagon in coordination with the State Department.

Echoes of impeachment

The House’s defense spending bill would provide $275 million for Ukraine security assistance, $25 million more than the president requested. The measure specifies that $50 million of that money would have to be spent on lethal weaponry.

The Ukraine provision in the House’s defense spending bill also says those funds “shall be exempt from apportionment.” That is a reference to the process by which most federal appropriations must be allocated by OMB before departments and agencies can spend the money. The idea is, in essence, to ensure that agencies do not spend their funds too quickly. But OMB cannot hold money for prolonged periods — at least without notifying Congress.

The provision in the new House defense bill is a response to what Democrats say is the president’s abuse of this White House authority to apportion funds when he withheld for months last year $391 million in fiscal 2019 Ukrainian security assistance funds.

In their impeachment of the president earlier this year, Democrats charged that the administration’s hold on the money was an attempt to coerce the Kyiv government into providing dirt on Joe Biden.

“President Trump’s abuse of the apportionment process to withhold aid from Ukraine was part of the corrupt scheme that led to his impeachment,” Evan Hollander, a spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “It’s simply good government to protect Congress’ power of the purse and ensure this abuse of power won’t happen again, and that’s exactly why Democrats have included this provision in the fiscal year 2021 Defense appropriations bill.”

Going to the mat?

Michael McCord, who worked as Pentagon comptroller during the Obama administration, said the House bill's Ukraine provision is a message that needed to be sent to the administration.

“While its legal impact would extend only to Ukraine aid, I see it as Congress sending a broader message on power of the purse,” McCord said.

Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wondered whether the obscure budget power at stake in the House provision is a politically serious enough matter for the president to veto the military’s money over — especially since it would draw attention to the controversy that prompted his impeachment. 

“Is that an issue the White House would go to the mat on to veto appropriations?” Harrison asked. 

Whether the House Democrats’ Ukraine provision would actually trigger a veto if it is kept in the final measure remains to be seen. The House plans to debate its Defense appropriations bill before the August recess, while Senate appropriators have yet to announce when they will mark up their bill.

But the mere threat of the Ukraine budget debate jeopardizing the bill’s enactment, without Trump saying a word about it yet, has already become a factor in the negotiations, Republicans say.