The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans signal they may oppose new covid aid unless White House accounts for existing spending

GOP lawmakers cited Post investigation showing major gaps in transparency — and a high risk of fraud — in roughly $6 trillion approved so far by Congress

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) steps off an escalator at the Capitol on Feb. 17. (Jon Cherry/Reuters)
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Three dozen Republican senators told the White House on Wednesday that they may be unwilling to approve new coronavirus aid until they first learn how much money the U.S. government has already spent.

The early warning arrived in a letter led by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), just days after the Biden administration asked Congress to approve $30 billion to boost public health as part of a still-forming deal to fund the government and stave off a shutdown at the end of next week.

In their note, the 36 Republicans stressed they have supported “unprecedented investments in vaccines, therapeutics and testing” in the past, including multiple bipartisan stimulus packages adopted under President Donald Trump. But they fretted it is still “not yet clear why additional funding is needed,” particularly now, given a lack of transparency in the roughly $6 trillion approved to date.

‘Immense fraud’ creates immense task for Washington as it tries to tighten scrutiny of $6 trillion in emergency coronavirus spending

The GOP lawmakers cited a recent investigation from The Washington Post, which documented the U.S. government’s persistent struggles in overseeing its own pandemic stimulus programs. The money remains difficult to track, while federal watchdogs have been outmatched in keeping a close eye on the aid, together resulting at times in rampant fraud. The troubles prompted President Biden to announce a new campaign to combat such criminal activity during the State of the Union address on Tuesday.

In response, Romney and his allies a day later asked the Biden administration for a more thorough accounting as to how the White House might spend $30 billion in new aid. And they further pressed the administration to deliver more detail on how much actually remains in existing programs, including those enacted last year under Biden’s roughly $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

“Before we would consider supporting an additional $30 billion” in covid-19 relief, the group of GOP lawmakers wrote, “Congress must receive a full accounting of how the government has already spent the first $6 trillion.”

In an interview, Romney said that the Republicans he’s spoken with want to see this data “before we quickly write a check for another $30 billion.” The senator added of the president: “My assumption is, of the $1.9 trillion sent out in March [2021], he ought to be able to find $30 billion from that figure.”

Responding to the letter, an official with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said Wednesday that the Biden administration has briefed Congress regularly on the status of stimulus funds. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations, said nearly all of the funds set aside for the Department of Health and Human Services have been used.

The GOP request only adds to the headaches facing the Biden administration as it looks to shepherd through Congress another round of aid to fight the coronavirus in a tough political climate. While Democrats have promised to append the aid to a long-term spending deal, known as the omnibus, they face a fast-ticking clock: Lawmakers have until March 11 to reach a bipartisan bargain with Republicans, otherwise key federal agencies are set to shut down.

“Congress must pass more covid funding, now, so we can be ready by funding vaccines, testing, therapeutics and supporting our health-care workers,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an appeal to members on the chamber floor Wednesday. “If Congress waits for another variant to arrive, it’ll be too late. We need our Republican colleagues to join us in a bipartisan way.”

Talks are underway on a broad spending deal, with both sides sounding such notes of progress that House leaders are tentatively eying a vote early next week. But a flurry of disagreements do remain over the size and scope of defense spending as well as a separate yet related push to provide billions of dollars in new aid to Ukraine.

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In recent weeks, senior White House officials have made the case for fresh investment in coronavirus programs, arguing that the country is equipped to battle the now-waning surge — but may need money in anticipation of new, more dangerous variants. Speaking this month, Jeff Zients, the president’s coronavirus response chief, said the United States is “looking at a future” where it probably needs money for treatments, pills, testing and vaccines, especially as the country looks to lead an “effort to vaccinate the world.”

Days after his public comments, the Department of Health and Human Services outlined its specific needs in private briefings on Capitol Hill. The agency said at the time it had exhausted nearly all of a roughly $350 billion agency program for coronavirus tests, treatments and vaccines, with some of the money spent and some obligated for specific, ongoing efforts to combat the current omicron variant.

Top HHS officials later requested about $30 billion in supplemental funding, aiming to deliver more antivirals and monoclonal antibody treatments, sustain testing capacity and develop new vaccines. That request came on top of an additional, separate ask for about $5 billion to distribute immunizations to countries in need.

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

Democrats have sought to augment those amounts further, especially to provide vaccines globally, citing fears that new variants could emerge in unprotected populations. An OMB official said existing dollars had helped the administration address both the delta and omicron variants but pointed to the fact the waves arrived after lawmakers approved funds under the American Rescue Plan.

But Republicans have been reticent to approve another round of coronavirus aid, after uniting in opposition to Biden’s rescue plan last March. Taking to the Senate floor in February, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at one point blasted his political foes for their most recent $1.9 trillion stimulus, which he said had compounded the recent spike in inflation. Since then, he and other lawmakers have argued the Biden administration should seek instead to repurpose existing, unused funds.

At the same time, though, GOP lawmakers have said they remain in the dark about the status of those dollars — making it difficult for some to decide what, exactly, to support. That includes public health money as well as additional sums set aside for state and local governments to spend essentially as they see fit, Romney and his allies wrote Tuesday. A separate investigation by The Post earlier this year found some of that money had been put to use on pet projects, including efforts to construct prisons and golf courses, rather than fighting the coronavirus.

“We strongly believe Americans should continue to take precautionary measures to protect against the pandemic,” the 36 Republicans stressed in their letter, “and it must be an urgent priority that the trillions of taxpayer dollars already appropriated are being spent effectively.”