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Week in politics: Biden bans luxury exports to Russia; new bill for pandemic aid


NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us now to talk about the domestic politics around Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Good morning, Tam.


ELLIOTT: Let's start with the Biden administration's latest round of punishments on Russia, this time focused on trade.

KEITH: That's right. President Biden is banning Russian imports of certain goods - like seafood, vodka, diamonds - worth about a billion dollars a year to Russia, and he's stopping U.S. exports to anyone in Russia of luxury items, like high-end vehicles and watches. He also said that he will work with members of Congress to revoke Russia's permanent normal trade relations status with the U.S. This means the U.S. will be able to charge higher tariffs on any Russian imports.

Now, Russia is not a huge U.S. trading partner. It's about 20th on the list of countries that the U.S. imports from. And Congress was actually ready to move on this earlier, but Biden had asked them to hold off a bit so he could coordinate this move with allies. And doing it in conjunction with Europe and the G-7 gives it a bit more punch.

It's also interesting because this move has significant bipartisan support, even with some notable exceptions. This just awful conflict in Ukraine has provided a unifying moment in American politics and on Capitol Hill.

ELLIOTT: What is that they say about a common enemy, right? It seems that opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and condemnation of what is going on in Ukraine has been something most Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

KEITH: Right. There - as you say, there's a certain unity of purpose in opposition to this unprovoked war and opposition to President Putin. Congress easily passed additional funding to deal with the crisis. The administration announced yesterday they're sending another $200 million worth of additional arms and equipment to Ukraine. You also have evidence that the American public is supportive of the ban on oil imports from Russia, even if it means higher gas prices.

Now, this relative unity could obviously change as Putin's war rages on. There could be stronger political disagreements in the future about how much U.S. involvement there should be or about tactics. And I should say that that disagreement may ultimately not fall perfectly along party lines because there are isolationists and hawks in both parties.

ELLIOTT: Right. So this week, the House is expected to take up standalone legislation that would provide billions of new dollars in pandemic aid. But if that's going to get to the president's desk, Senate Republicans will have to help out here. What is the chance of that happening?

KEITH: You used to cover Congress.

ELLIOTT: (Laughter).

KEITH: It's not great. Democrats had to strip out $15.6 billion in COVID funding from the spending measure that passed last week because COVID funding had become a sticking point, and they wanted to prioritize keeping the government funded and getting aid to Ukraine. The White House had actually asked for $22 billion, but members of Congress, Republicans especially, are skeptical that more money is really needed, that the White House couldn't just shift funds around to new priorities. So, yes, the House is set to take this up this week. But now that it isn't attached to a must-pass bill, it's really hard to see 10 Republicans in the Senate coming on board to get this through the Senate.

ELLIOTT: You know, the White House has said if Congress doesn't come through with this money, the consequences could be dire. With COVID cases coming down now, what's the urgency here? What is this money targeted for?

KEITH: Right. There's sort of this universal law of Congress that it is much easier to get funding passed in the midst of a crisis or to clean up after disaster strikes, and it is vastly harder to get funding for a crisis that hasn't happened yet. Earlier this month, the White House came out with a road map for the next phase of the pandemic, and a lot of the items in that plan called for extra money from Congress to help pay for it. And the idea is that things feel pretty good right now, but you don't know when the next problematic variant will come along and upend everything again. In particular, they're talking about testing. The testing industry needs government support to provide certainty, and the White House has asked for $2 billion to keep at-home rapid tests on the market.

ELLIOTT: That's NPR's White House correspondent, Tamara Keith. Thanks so much, Tam.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.