Senators press for speedy release of promised food aid as global crises intensify

Senators press for speedy release of promised food aid as global crises intensify

A bipartisan pair of senators is pressing the Biden administration to quickly finalize plans to distribute $1 billion in food aid that was announced last fall, amid spiraling hunger crises around the world that lawmakers fear could trigger new political instability and migration flows.

Lawmakers have been privately raising alarms about the delay since last October, when the Biden administration announced that the U.S. would deliver $1 billion worth of U.S. farm commodities to countries facing food insecurity, noting the “dire” spike in global hunger since the pandemic.

New pressure: Now, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and John Boozman (Ark.), the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, are pressing USAID Administrator Samantha Power and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to finalize the plans for the aid “as quickly as possible” in order to start shipping it from the U.S. and stave off the worst of the growing crisis, according to a new letter obtained by POLITICO.

“There is no shortage of need and the urgency cannot be overstated,” Booker and Boozman write in their letter, which is dated Feb. 20.

Delays: USDA and USAID have hammered out most of the details for the aid distribution, which are awaiting White House approval, according to two people familiar with the matter who were granted anonymity to discuss internal plans. The type of non-traditional farm commodities that USDA selected as part of the aid disbursement appears to be part of the reason for the slowdown, along with the legal authority the department initially used to tap its internal funds for the move, according to a congressional aide familiar with the matter.

Vilsack recently told POLITICO that his department was working with USAID “to figure out exactly where that resource goes and how it gets distributed.”

“They’re the ones who basically call the shots on that,” Vilsack said when asked about the delay in delivering the food aid. “We basically provide the money; they basically direct where it goes.”

USDA spokesperson Allan Rodriguez confirmed the department is still working “expeditiously” with USAID on the matter.

More food aid stuck in Congress: Booker and Boozman’s push comes as a separate pot of more than $10 billion in humanitarian and emergency global food aid funding is stuck in Congress, part of the stalled Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel foreign aid package.

Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to allow a House vote on the package. Some House lawmakers are now working on a new, alternative proposal that would strip out the humanitarian and emergency food aid funding entirely, which many Democrats strongly oppose.

Gaza aid: The battle in Washington over global food aid funding has only intensified since Israel launched its war in Gaza in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks.

The foreign aid package currently stuck in Congress includes money to supply food and water for civilians in Gaza and Palestinians fleeing the war there. Sending any U.S. aid to Gaza and Palestinian refugees in the region is now an especially fraught topic on Capitol Hill.

“There’s hungry people in Ukraine, about 11 million. But in Gaza, it’s 2.2 million people there, [and] 2.2 million people are starving,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a recent interview after meeting with World Food Program Chief Cindy McCain.

DeLauro also knocked the speaker for putting a standalone Israel aid bill on the floor that did not include any humanitarian aid funding. That legislation was voted down, in part due to opposition from Democrats who wanted to include humanitarian assistance for Gaza.

The U.S. has suspended support to the main United Nations aid agency in Gaza, amid an internal investigation over allegations that some employees participated in Hamas’ October assault on Israel. The WFP alone would likely receive the bulk of any U.S. aid resources to distribute in Gaza and nearby regions. But immense challenges remain in getting that aid into Gaza and other regions reeling from famine conditions.

What’s next: Unless a bipartisan group of House lawmakers can end-run Johnson and force a vote on the Senate-approved foreign aid package in the coming weeks, few lawmakers believe the $10 billion in humanitarian aid will pass Congress this year. That’s only increased congressional pressure on the Biden administration to send out its promised $1 billion in food aid as quickly as possible.

Caitlin Emma contributed to this report. 

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