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Biden administration outlines need for $30 billion in new coronavirus aid

Republicans have raised concerns about approving new money, saying there are unspent funds that should be used first.

U.S. President Biden, speaking on American manufacturing in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg)

The Biden administration told lawmakers it may need about $30 billion in additional aid to combat the coronavirus, as it looks to restock key public health programs with new funds and ensure it is prepared against any future variants.

Top officials from the Department of Health and Human Services briefed key lawmakers about their spending needs Tuesday, according to two people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to describe the private deliberations. Some Democrats believe that such aid could be appended to any bipartisan deal reached in the days ahead to fund the federal government for the remainder of the 2022 fiscal year.

Discussions about another round of coronavirus aid have intensified in recent weeks, particularly as the White House has tapped billions of dollars in existing money in response to the lightning-quick spread of the omicron variant. The aid has allowed the Biden administration to ramp up its work to deliver vaccines, procure therapeutics and boost testing, including the launch of a new initiative to make 1 billion free tests available to American families.

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In recent days, White House officials have assured they have enough money at the moment from prior packages, including the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted last year. But they also have come to acknowledge publicly and privately that they may need additional dollars in reserve — especially if a new, more concerning version of the coronavirus surfaces.

To illustrate the point, the Biden administration transmitted to Congress recently a set of documents that appeared to show it had committed nearly all of a roughly $350 billion federal program for coronavirus tests, treatments and vaccines, according to data first reported by the Washington Post.

A spokesman for HHS confirmed Tuesday that officials had “discussed the status of covid response funds as well as the need for additional resources to support securing more lifesaving treatments and vaccines, sustaining testing capacity, and investing in research and development of next-generation vaccines.”

“These resources would help us continue expanding the tools the country needs to stay ahead of the virus and help us move toward the time when covid-19 will not disrupt our daily lives,” the spokesperson added in a statement.

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The discussions come as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill forge ahead in negotiations over a longer-term government funding deal — a measure that could sustain federal agencies and stave off any risk of shutdown through the end of the fiscal year.

A fuller spending package could serve as a vehicle for new coronavirus aid and other emergency dollars, including federal money to respond to recent natural disasters. But Democrats and Republicans have not yet made any decisions about the provision of those funds, as they focus instead on setting the overall budget levels at key federal programs and agencies.

In a sign of the tough task to come, Republicans have signaled they may not be willing to approve new spending for coronavirus aid until they have a fuller accounting as to the state of the roughly $6 trillion authorized since the start of the pandemic. Some GOP lawmakers have said they believe that Washington first should redirect existing aid before commissioning new money.

“Let’s start the discussion by talking about repurposing the hundreds of billions already sitting in the pipeline,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier this month.

Democrats, however, have signaled they favor a bolder approach, especially in urging the White House to spend anew to procure and ship vaccines globally. More than 80 party lawmakers in December called for at least $17 billion in new funds to address the worldwide disparity in access, citing the fact that low inoculation rates abroad could help spawn new, perhaps more deadly mutations.

Covid deaths are the highest in a year as virus hits unvaccinated and the elderly.

Other Democrats have encouraged the White House and their own party leaders to revive an expired federal stimulus program from 2020 that had allowed families to take limited paid family and medical leave to recover or respond to the coronavirus. The request comes as Democrats continue to push for a broader, permanent program to provide paid leave, which has stalled in the Senate as part of the imperiled, roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better Act.

“Congress must reenact and expand the [stimulus package’s] guaranteed emergency paid sick and caregiving leave to help workers and rebuild our economy, as we work toward the creation of a permanent paid family and medical leave program for all workers in the long term,” wrote 14 Democrats led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a long time advocate on the issue.

And still another, bipartisan group of lawmakers have called for additional aid for small businesses, hoping to boost cash-strapped restaurants, gyms, performance venues and other firms. But the White House request, if it is sent to the Hill, is not expected to call for additional aid set aside for small businesses, and it remains unclear if they can ultimately attract the support necessary to advance it in the narrowly divided Senate.