The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a sweeping surge in defense spending on Thursday, signing off on a $858 billion budget for the military and nearly $50 billion in assistance to Ukraine a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed a joint meeting of Congress.

Senators voted 68-29 for the $1.7 trillion spending bill, which will fund Pentagon operations and the rest of the federal government through September 2023. The vote followed Zelenskyy’s stirring in-person appearance in the House chamber on Wednesday night in which the wartime president pressed lawmakers to “speed up our victory” with continued aid.

“By passing this omnibus … we can send President Zelenskyy back to Ukraine with the message that the Senate, the Congress and the American people stand unequivocally behind the people of Ukraine, and we are backing that up with real dollars and real resources,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday.

The annual legislation, called an omnibus, now moves to the House and needs to pass the lower chamber by Friday to avoid a government shutdown and give Ukraine the means to fight Russia.

The bill features the largest infusion of emergency aid for Ukraine since Russian troops invaded the country in February. The $45 billion sum is more than the White House’s $38 billion request and includes $16 billion for economic and humanitarian aid, $12 billion to replenish U.S. equipment sent to Ukraine, $9 billion for weapons, training and other support and an extra $7 billion for U.S. military operations in Europe.

American troops in NATO member countries such as Poland and Romania, which share a border with Ukraine, increased by thousands this year.

“Ukraine’s success shows that American support is working. To date, our funding has put more weapons in Ukrainian hands and more victories under their belt. Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas when it comes to helping Ukraine,” Schumer said. “The single worst thing we can do right now is give [Russian President Vladimir] Putin any signal that we are wavering in our commitment to defend democracy in Ukraine and around the globe.”

In a win for Republicans skeptical of where the Ukraine aid is going, the bill also earmarks $6 million for oversight measures. Total wartime assistance to Ukraine will exceed $100 billion if President Joe Biden signs off on the funding legislation.

Half the spending measure is for defense while about $773 billion is for non-defense discretionary spending, including a record $119 billion for veterans’ medical care and the implementation of the PACT Act. The landmark legislation, adopted into law in August, improves health care access for veterans exposed to burn pits and other environmental hazards during their military service.

Congress raised appropriations for national security by 10% — about $76 billion — from last year’s amount, providing the funding necessary to implement priorities outlined in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act passed this month.

The spending bill invests in military personnel, giving service members and the Defense Department’s civilian employees a 4.6% pay raise due to take effect Jan. 1. Housing and food allowances for troops will increase by 11% under the legislation.

About $19 billion will be spent on military construction projects such as family housing while funding for public school construction on military bases will more than double. Close to $500 million would be set aside for carrying out the recommendations of a commission examining sexual assault in the military.

The Pentagon is slated to receive a significant boost for weapons and equipment procurement as the military continues to counter Russian aggression and readies for growing competition with China. The spending measure gives an extra $4 billion to the Navy for its shipbuilding budget, raising it to $32 billion and allowing the service to procure 12 additional ships.

Other service branches will get dozens of additional F-35 fighter jets, planes, tanks, missile systems and other equipment.

“The world’s greatest military will get the funding increase that it needs,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Senators on Thursday also adopted an amendment that will extend pay and benefits for Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis, who is serving a three-year prison sentence in Japan for negligent driving. Alkonis lost consciousness while driving and caused the death of two people in May 2021.

Alkonis’ leave and pay were set to run out at the end of the month, leaving his wife and three young children without the income of the family’s sole provider, said amendment sponsor Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. The Defense Department had declined to make an exception to its pay policies for Alkonis’ case, according to Lee.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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