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Why gas prices are so high, Congress struggles with how to move forward in the pandemic, and more COVID news

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COVID news for March 9 ahead:

Congressional leaders reached a bipartisan deal early Wednesday providing $13.6 billion to help Ukraine and European allies plus billions more to battle the pandemic as part of an overdue $1.5 trillion measure financing federal agencies for the rest of this year.Though a tiny fraction of the massive bill, the money countering a Russian blitzkrieg that's devastated parts of Ukraine and prompted Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II ensured the measure would pass with robust bipartisan support. President Joe Biden requested $10 billion for military, humanitarian and economic aid last week, and Democratic and Republican backing was so staunch that the figure grew to $12 billion Monday and $13.6 billion just a day later."We're going to support them against tyranny, oppression, violent acts of subjugation," President Biden said at the White House.Party leaders planned to whip the 2,741-page measure through the House on Wednesday and the Senate by week's end, though that chamber's exact timing was unclear. Lawmakers were spurred by the urgency of helping Ukraine before Russia's military might makes it too late.They also faced a Friday deadline to approve the government-wide spending measure or face a weekend election-year federal shutdown. As a backstop against delays, the House planned to pass a bill Wednesday keeping agencies afloat through March 15.Over $4 billion of the Ukraine aid was to help the country and Eastern European nations cope with the 2 million refugees who've already fled the fighting. Another $6.7 billion was for the deployment of U.S. troops and equipment to the region and to transfer American military items to Ukraine and U.S. allies, and there was economic aid and money to enforce economic sanctions against Russia as well."War in Europe has focused the energies of Congress to getting something done and getting it done fast," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the measure would provide loan guarantees to Poland to help it replace aircraft it is sending Ukraine. "It's been like pulling teeth" to get Democrats to agree to some of the defense spending, he said. But he added, "It's an important step. It needs to be passed. It needs to be passed quickly."The bipartisan rallying behind the Ukraine aid was just one manifestation of Congress' eagerness to help the beleaguered country, though not all of it has been harmonious.Republicans accused President Biden of moving too slowly to help Ukraine and NATO allies and to impose sanctions against Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Democrats countered that time was needed to bring along European allies that rely heavily on Russian energy sources. And a bipartisan push to ban Russian oil imports had become nearly unstoppable before President Biden announced Tuesday that he would do that on his own.The huge overall bill was stocked with victories for both parties.For Democrats, it provides $730 billion for domestic programs, 6.7% more than last year, the biggest boost in four years. Republicans won $782 billion for defense, 5.6% over last year's levels.In contrast, President Biden's 2022 budget last spring proposed a 16% increase for domestic programs and less than 2% more for defense numbers that were doomed from the start thanks to Democrats' slender congressional majorities.The bill was also fueled by large numbers of hometown projects for both parties' lawmakers, which Congress had banned since 2011 but were revived this year. The spending once called earmarks, now dubbed community projects includes money for courthouses in Connecticut and Tennessee and repairs to a post office in West Virginia. And it names a federal building in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after Sen. Richard Shelby, the state's senior GOP senator, a chief author of the bill who's retiring after six terms.Democrats won $15.6 billion for a fresh round of spending for vaccines, testing and treatments for COVID-19, including $5 billion for fighting the pandemic around the world. That was below President Biden's $22.5 billion request.Republicans said they'd forced Democrats to pay for the entire amount by pulling back money from COVID-19 relief bills enacted previously. Much of the money was to go to help states and businesses cope with the toll of the pandemic.There's added money for child care, job training, economic development in poorer communities and more generous Pell grants for low-income undergraduates. Public health and biomedical research would get increases, including $194 million for President Biden's "Cancer Moonshot" effort to cure the disease.Citizenship and Immigration Services would get funds to reduce huge backlogs of people trying to enter the U.S. There would be fresh efforts to bolster renewable energy and curb pollution, with some of that aimed specifically at communities of color.There

House Democrats nix COVID funds, but allow talk for Ukraine aid

Democratic leaders abruptly abandoned plans for a fresh infusion of $15.6 billion for battling the COVID pandemic on Wednesday, clearing the way for House debate and passage of a vast government spending bill that is anchored by aid for Ukraine and European allies.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced that the COVID-19 spending would be removed from the package after rank-and-file lawmakers objected that it would be paid for, in part, by cutting previously approved pandemic assistance to their states.

“We must proceed” with the government-wide $1.5 trillion legislation because of the urgency of helping Ukraine and the bill’s spending for other programs, Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues.

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Why gas prices are so high

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a major reason that US drivers are paying record prices for gasoline. But it's not the only reason.

Numerous factors are combining to push gas prices up to a record. Gas hit $4.25 for a gallon of regular gas, according to AAA's survey Wednesday.

Gas prices were already expected to breach the $4 a gallon mark for the first time since 2008, with or without shots fired or economic sanctions imposed in Eastern Europe.

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Judge dismisses Republican case against House mask mandate

A federal judge has ruled that the House's mask mandate didn't violate the First Amendment and dismissed a case from three Republicans who sued Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Capitol Hill administrators over the rule.

Reps. Thomas Massie, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ralph Norman "had myriad means of expressing their stated messages, including wearing masks or other clothing containing the messages they wanted to convey, or making speeches from the House Chamber or elsewhere on the subject," the judge, Reggie Walton of the DC District Court, wrote in an opinion Wednesday.

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Millions of kids risk hunger if Congress doesn't extend lunch waivers

Millions of needy children have had an easier time getting free meals at school and over the summer thanks to waivers Congress authorized at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But that nourishment is now at risk. Lawmakers have not yet agreed to extend the waivers past June 30 in the full-year spending package unveiled early Wednesday morning.

Authorized by the US Department of Agriculture, the waivers allow schools to distribute free meals to all students without verifying their families' income. They give districts the flexibility to offer grab-and-go meals for kids who are quarantining or studying remotely or to serve meals in classrooms instead of the cafeteria.

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