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Lawmakers close on covid funding deal that halves White House request

$10 billion pact would finance vaccines and treatments but provide far less for global vaccination effort

Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on Capitol Hill. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Key Senate lawmakers said Thursday they had agreed on a framework to continue funding coronavirus vaccines, antiviral treatments and other supplies for Americans, but that would drastically cut plans to help vaccinate millions of people around the world.

“We’ve reached an agreement in principle on all the spending and all of the offsets,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has led negotiations for Republicans after they balked at the need for $15 billion in new funds, and House Democrats raised concerns about a planned compromise.

If passed in its current form, the $10 billion deal would represent a significant disappointment for the White House, which had publicly campaigned for at least $22 billion in new funds and would probably be forced to scale back elements of its planned response. But lawmakers are facing a rapidly approaching deadline, with Congress soon taking a two-week break, and administration officials warning that they are effectively out of cash for urgent coronavirus needs. The federal government has already begun to wind down a program to cover the costs of health-care providers that give coronavirus tests, treatments and vaccinations to uninsured Americans, an initiative that officials said has cost about $2 billion per month.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told The Washington Post he was “optimistic” a final deal would be reached, a stance echoed by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in remarks on the Senate floor.

“We are getting close to a final agreement that would garner bipartisan support,” Schumer said, adding that lawmakers were “working diligently” to agree on a package that would address both domestic and global needs.

Romney, who said the money would come from unspent funds in previous stimulus packages, added that he expected a vote on the deal next week.

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About half of the money would go for covid therapeutics, while the other half would be at the “discretion” of the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters. A Republican aide said that $750 million was being eyed for research and development of new vaccines and treatments.

Several GOP lawmakers said about $1 billion in funding would be set aside to support global vaccinations — down from the White House’s $5 billion request for global aid. But that number appeared to be in flux, with several Democrats on Thursday arguing for considerably more and lawmakers acknowledging that they were still negotiating.

“If there was a deal, I think we’d be voting on it,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the chamber’s No. 2 Republican.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) has been among the lawmakers pushing to include some funding for the global response after some lawmakers moved to drop it completely. “There [are] 2.5 billion people unvaccinated in the world, and that is an ongoing daily risk to the United States,” Coons said.

The funding package’s collapse three weeks ago prompted U.S. officials to warn that they had exhausted funds to purchase vaccines, antiviral treatments and other supplies, putting the nation at risk. The White House has already reduced the supply of monoclonal antibody treatments to states by 35 percent because of the lack of pandemic funding. Congress is also set to begin a two-week recess on April 9, raising fears that failing to secure a deal now could stall the U.S. response into May.

“Congress, please act. You have to act immediately,” President Biden said in a speech on Wednesday, saying that officials had already been forced to delay or cancel planned orders for covid treatments. “The consequences of inaction are severe. They’ll only grow with time, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

A Biden administration plan to help vaccinate the world will also soon run out of money, administration officials said. That plan, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, would boost the infrastructure for administering vaccinations in developing nations, which officials say will curb the risk of variants emerging overseas and leading to outbreaks in the United States.

“Without more funding … the United States would have to turn its back on countries that need urgent help to boost their vaccination rates,” Atul Gawande, who leads global health at USAID, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Wednesday. “We can’t let this happen. It not only endangers people abroad, but also risks the health and prosperity of all Americans. The virus is not waiting on Congress to negotiate; it is infecting people and mutating as we speak.”

Some Democrats have called for as much as $17 billion in global covid aid and criticized congressional leaders for backing away from international commitments.

“I recall the president saying that the United States should be, would be, the ‘arsenal of vaccines,’ ” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), vice chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “And I’m extremely disappointed that ever since that statement, and at every possible opportunity, this has been de-prioritized.” Malinowski said he would not support a funding package if it did not include some money for the global response.

For weeks, the White House has publicly sought more than $22 billion for the response, although Biden officials in early January had privately concluded that they needed as much as $80 billion in additional covid aid for vaccines, therapeutics and other supplies.

By early March, congressional leaders had settled on about $15.6 billion and sought to attach that to a broader package to fund the government, an effort to ensure passage of the coronavirus aid.

But some House Democrats were upset over one of the financing mechanisms — an effort to claw back money for state governments to address their pandemic needs. The uproar caused House leaders to strip the coronavirus aid from the deal.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), the chairman of the National Governors Association, said it would have been unfair to rescind money states had been counting on. But he said he still wanted Congress to clinch a deal on more aid, as long as it was fully paid for.

“The last thing that Americans would expect is that we get caught flat-footed again,” Hutchinson said in an interview last week. “The administration says that takes additional funding. I take them at face value for those comments, and so then we got to figure out where that money’s going to come from.”

Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.