5 questions about COVID-19 funding that’s stuck in DC
WASHINGTON — Congress remains undecided on exactly how to provide billions more to fight the COVID-19 pandemic as a new variant spreads across states and public health officials warn the virus shows no signs of disappearance.
Negotiators were close to a deal for about $10 billion in federal spending, but as of Friday, several lawmakers remained skeptical, the text of a bill was far from complete and the details of the compromise were murky at best.
“We are getting closer to a final deal that would garner bipartisan support,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday.
Democrats and Republicans had reached a bipartisan agreement in early March to add $15.6 billion for additional tests, treatments and vaccines to a much larger government funding bill.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, had to shoot the deal after many lawmakers — including from his own party — expressed frustration that some of the new spending was paid for by clawing back COVID-19 money previously approved for state governments.
Over the next three weeks, the Biden administration has raised several alarms about the public health fallout that will occur if lawmakers cannot quickly deliver the full $22.5 billion it demand early March.
Here are five questions as Congress seeks a final bipartisan agreement:
Who are the negotiators?
Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney has taken the lead in talks with Democrats on how much the bill should spend and how Congress should pay for additional public health needs.
Schumer, a Democrat from New York, meets regularly with Romney this week. Also on the list are Missouri GOP Senator Roy Blunt, Republican North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, Democratic Delaware Senator Chris Coons, South Carolina GOP Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Washington State Senator Patty Murray. involved in the talks.
How soon will this be done?
Schumer said Thursday afternoon that he wanted to hold floor votes before the chamber leaves on April 8 for his two-week spring break.
Republicans want time to see a final piece of legislation as well as a detailed report from the Congressional Budget Office on potential costs before allowing the legislation to go forward. Whether that should happen in early April is up for debate among GOP senators.
The top Republican on the Senate spending panel, Richard Shelby of Alabama, said this week he “felt no urgency” to push forward a COVID-19 spending bill.
“Unless there’s a new variant that really takes off, things seem to be headed in the right direction,” Shelby said.
How will he be paid?
Republicans say they want the entire bill paid with money Congress has already approved for the pandemic. This is a measure that would avoid increasing the deficit, but that also slows down and complicates the negotiations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, said the bill needed to be “paid for entirely with the money that’s already in the pipeline by rescheduling it for whatever amount (the Democrats) can. justify to do the work”.
The Biden administration says the funding is for an emergency and therefore does not need to be offset by withdrawing approved but not yet spent funds.
The White House, however, leaves “the mechanism to finally reach an agreement” to Congress, according to Kate Bedingfield, director of communications.
What about vaccines in other countries?
The biggest dispute over the $10 billion interim deal is that it sets aside about $5 billion in funding meant to help vaccinate people around the world.
Pelosi told a news conference Thursday that setting aside billions for global vaccine efforts was “shameful” and would likely mean Congress would have to negotiate another bill this summer.
“I think what Republicans do is they either don’t care or they don’t know. But that’s wrong,” Pelosi said.
Schumer said later in the day that lawmakers were “working diligently to finalize the language, the scoring, and a final agreement on what should be funded in the final COVID package — both domestic and international.”
What if the money is not approved?
The timing of a final deal as well as floor votes in the House and Senate will determine the impact the stalled deal will have on efforts to diagnose and treat COVID-19.
President Joe Biden said that the “consequences of inaction are serious and will only grow with time”.
The federal government has already had to reduce the amount of monoclonal antibodies it sends to state governments and plans to run out the current supply by the end of May.
Testing capacity won’t last long beyond June, and preventative treatments for immunocompromised people will run out this fall.
The vaccine supply is expected to start running out in the fall without new funding.
In Virginia, State health officials said they were told in March that a program that reimburses Virginia providers for offering tests and treatment to uninsured patients, administered by the US Health Resources and Services Administration, ran out of moneywhich abruptly interrupted these repayments.