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Republicans reluctant on $15 billion in virus aid, as White House warns about pandemic readiness

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/15/2022 Tony Romm, Rachel Roubein, Dan Diamond
President Biden attends a covid-19 response team meeting at the White House on Jan. 13, 2022 with, from left, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients. On-screen are Maj. Katherine Kasch, Lt. Cmdr. Diana Tran-Yu and Lt. Col. Colonel Suzanne Cobleigh. © Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post President Biden attends a covid-19 response team meeting at the White House on Jan. 13, 2022 with, from left, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients. On-screen are Maj. Katherine Kasch, Lt. Cmdr. Diana Tran-Yu and Lt. Col. Colonel Suzanne Cobleigh.

Senate Republicans on Tuesday held firm in their reluctance to approve roughly $15 billion in new coronavirus aid, even as the White House warned anew that congressional inaction threatened to imperil the country’s ability to deliver tests, therapeutics and vaccines.

The stalemate left Washington scrambling to find solutions for the second consecutive week, while the future of the U.S. government’s pandemic response appeared to hang in the balance — stymied not by a vexing new pathogen but a now-familiar political battle over federal spending.

The day began with an urgent call to action, as top White House officials stressed they needed to restock a series of critical aid programs that had been nearly depleted by the fast-spreading omicron wave. The public request reflected a growing sense of panic within the Biden administration that the country may not be fully prepared if the pandemic were to worsen precipitously again.

“We continue to urge Congress to promptly provide the critical funds needed to prevent severe disruptions to our COVID response,” wrote Shalanda Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, in a letter to lawmakers.

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Absent that, top aides to the president emphasized the consequences could be vast. By the end of this month, for example, the federal government would not be able to purchase more monoclonal antibodies, officials said, forcing Washington to cut allocations of the lifesaving treatment to states by more than 30 percent starting next week. So too might the Biden administration have to scale back its newly planned programs to deliver other tests, treatments and vaccines, added the president’s advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the White House’s thinking.

“We don’t have enough vaccine for a fourth booster dose, for everybody. If we need a variant-specific vaccine, we don’t have it,” a senior administration official said in a separate interview, listing other expected shortages.

“This is real. It’s very important that people understand the implications of not providing additional funds,” the official continued.

The new pleas arrived hours before news broke that Pfizer and BioNTech, which jointly produce a coronavirus vaccine central to the nation’s strategy, will ask the federal government to authorize a second booster shot for older Americans. The formal request offered the latest sign that the pandemic — while waning — remains far from over. But the dire warnings and new developments still failed to budge fiscally conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, who affirmed their skepticism about shelling out new sums at a time when the federal deficit is high and inflation is rising.

“As I’ve said all along, I don’t know if we need any money,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the chamber’s Appropriations Committee, which oversees such spending. He described the White House’s pleas as merely “a statement,” adding: “We’d like to see the particulars.”

Instead, GOP lawmakers demanded that Democrats devise a way to pay for any new coronavirus spending in full, largely through redirecting money from other programs. Barring that, Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the top Republican vote counter, predicted there is “probably not” a way to secure the party’s must-have votes in the narrowly divided chamber, potentially dooming its prospects.

The uncertainty only further added to the doubts that Congress could slip in its once-ambitious attempts to approve the spending this week, a looming potential setback that has unnerved lawmakers and public health advocates.

“I don’t know, I hope we do, we desperately need this,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the chamber’s majority whip, when asked if there is a path to prompt passage. “If a new variant emerges, and is deadly, we’re going to wish we put the money in to pay for it.”

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The tumult on Capitol Hill seemed all the more stark on the very day that lawmakers joined Biden at the White House, where he signed into law a roughly $1.5 trillion package to fund the government and provide assistance to Ukraine. The sweeping deal marked a rare moment of bipartisan accord after Democrats and Republicans put aside their political differences, largely to respond to Russia’s invasion.

Initially, Democrats had hoped to append to that package another burst of spending to boost federal coronavirus programs. They settled in talks with Republicans on roughly $15 billion, a significant sum backed by the Biden administration even though it amounted to less than half of the amount that top agencies first requested from Capitol Hill. Lawmakers even devised a way to pay for the investments, proposing to offset them by repurposing some of the roughly $6 trillion in stimulus money adopted since the start of the pandemic.

But the idea quickly ran into trouble with some House Democrats, who bristled at one of the financing mechanisms — an effort to claw back some funds that had been set aside for state governments to address their own pandemic needs. The bickering ultimately proved so intense that House leaders had no choice but to jettison coronavirus aid entirely from the broader funding measure, known as an omnibus, before proceeding to a final vote last week. The omission greatly troubled Democrats and the White House, since the must-pass bill had offered the easiest, most efficient political route to advancing pandemic spending in the face of mounting GOP objections.

“Our leverage here was with the [omnibus], and I’m worried we’re going to have a hard time,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the left-leaning Congressional Progressive Caucus, said during an interview Monday. Jayapal in particular pushed hard for the initial $15 billion, which included some of the funding she and her bloc of lawmakers sought to deploy vaccines globally.

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Since then, House leaders have pledged to return to the proposal this week. Behind the scenes, top Democrats have started exploring alternative ways to fully fund the aid package while preserving its existing policy scope, according to a senior party aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the negotiations.

Publicly, meanwhile, the Biden administration a day later redoubled its campaign to sell Congress on the need for immediate action.

Speaking with reporters, top aides to the president pointed to their planned purchase of a preventive treatment for immunocompromised patients as soon as the end of the month. Without aid, they said, the government would have to scale back those plans. More immediately, the White House warned about the fate of a federal program that reimburses doctors who provide free testing, treatment and vaccines to patients without insurance. Absent action on Capitol Hill, the initiative would effectively end by April 5, the aides confirmed.

Republicans, however, responded with a series of fresh political attacks on Tuesday. A quartet of Senate Republicans led by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Wis.), for example, set in motion a plan targeting the Biden administration’s rules requiring passengers to wear masks on planes. Wicker said the policy “makes no sense,” as he made the case for Congress to use special powers afforded to lawmakers to scrap federal regulations.

Other GOP leaders lambasted the administration for acting as poor stewards of its money, including the roughly $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Democrats adopted over Republican objections last spring. Many GOP lawmakers long have demanded more transparency from the White House about its existing spending, with three dozen in the Senate just this month promising to block any new aid unless it is repurposed from other federal accounts.

“We were very clear you need to repurpose money that has not been spent, that is out there, and it seems like the administration is not willing to do that,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the leader of the Senate Republican Conference.

Staking out his own early opposition, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on Tuesday slammed the Biden administration for seeking new money amid “the highest inflation rate in 40 years.”

“There are billions and billions of dollars the administration still hasn’t spent from their last boondoggle, and yet they’re asking for more billions and at the same time scratching their heads in wonderment that inflation is skyrocketing out of control,” Cruz said.

The senator from Texas similarly expressed an openness to a retooled proposal that instead repurposed existing stimulus money. “That could well make sense, but the Democrats don’t want to do that.”

By Tuesday evening, the two parties had not identified any new financing plan, further delaying the House from proceeding with its planned vote. Zients, the top White House pandemic adviser, instead focused his attention on calling around to Republicans in a bid to assuage their political concerns, said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who said Tuesday he would “support” putting more money to improve vaccines and treatments.

“There may be some acceptable pay-fors, and I’ve asked them to see what they can find,” he added.

The prospect of further delays and disputes even prompted some Democrats to urge a course correction of their own. Sensing further political wrangling on the horizon, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) on Tuesday urged her colleagues to consider scaling down their coronavirus aid package to about $8 billion, just over half its current size. The reduction reflects the amount that Democrats and Republicans previously agreed to finance through less controversial offsets, a move she said would allow Congress to make a “down payment” that can be expanded later in the year.

“Repeatedly, Congress has chosen to press forward with ideas that they know don’t have a path forward in the Senate, and we’ve ended up with nothing,” warned Murphy, a co-chair of the moderate-leaning Blue Dog Coalition, as she made the case for the two sides to come to terms with what is politically possible.

“My sincere hope is in this case we move forward on a pathway that gets us something and delivers for the American people,” she said.


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