The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP opposition leaves covid aid in peril as White House warns of surge

Billions of dollars remain stalled as the Biden administration warns it needs more money for tests, therapeutics and vaccines

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks with reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday. Congress is debating a request from the White House for billions more in coronavirus aid. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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A bipartisan push in Congress to adopt another round of coronavirus aid is in fresh political peril, as Republicans continue to block Democrats from swiftly approving as much as the Biden administration believes is necessary to prepare for an expected new surge.

Five days after federal health officials warned a new wave could infect 100 million people, lawmakers still find themselves struggling to overcome familiar partisan divides. There appears to be no immediate pathway in the Senate for a long-stalled agreement to spend $10 billion to boost the availability of tests, therapeutics and vaccines nationwide.

For weeks, the White House has sounded urgent alarms about the need for more aid, arguing it has already committed most of its existing public health dollars to specific uses. Some key federal initiatives even have run out of cash, leading the administration to slow purchases of critical supplies while shuttering a program that had provided free testing to uninsured Americans.

But those dire pleas have failed to resolve the logjam, as Republicans have held up the covid aid package as part of an unrelated immigration dispute. GOP lawmakers again this week have insisted they will not allow the Senate to proceed unless Democrats first permit a vote on amendments, especially a proposal to preserve restrictions on migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.

“It’s very simple: If the White House goes to [Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer] and says, ‘We’d like to get a vote on this, let the Republicans and Democrats each have amendments,’ it’ll be voted on and passed,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the chief GOP negotiator for the $10 billion bipartisan deal. “It’s being held up for political purposes only.”

Some Democrats had hoped to dodge the stalemate by linking the covid aid to a fast-moving measure to provide roughly $40 billion in new assistance to Ukraine. But the White House asked Congress to separate the two issues on Monday, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said a day later that he had urged President Biden to split them apart so the covid standoff did not delay the humanitarian support. The House passed the Ukraine aid bill on Tuesday evening.

The chain of events left Democrats scrambling to devise a new approach for the covid funding and bolster preparations for the virus — more than two years into the pandemic that has vexed policymakers at every turn.

“We are looking for every way to get a vote on it,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a top lawmaker on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “This is an urgent matter.”

Covid response may have to be scaled back amid congressional inaction, White House says

The clock is ticking in the eyes of the Biden administration. The president’s top advisers on pandemic response delivered their latest sobering assessment Friday: They projected the United States is likely to see another significant uptick in infections and deaths, cresting perhaps in the fall and winter, from a newer, faster-spreading version of the omicron variant that’s already circulating domestically.

In doing so, the administration also reaffirmed Tuesday that it is running out of funds to respond effectively in the event of a rapid decline. White House press secretary Jen Psaki outlined the potential doomsday scenarios to reporters at her daily briefing: The United States may struggle to maintain its supply of tests, for example, or “lose out to other countries on promising new treatments,” she said.

“We don’t want to sugarcoat it: We need more money. We don’t have a Plan B here,” she said.

The administration initially sought more than twice as much money, requesting $22.5 billion in March to restock dwindling federal supplies, though top officials noted at the time they were likely to need even more than that in the months to come. But Republicans questioned the need for more spending, arguing Congress had already adopted about $6 trillion in response to the pandemic.

The GOP first whittled down the amount, then insisted that any new coronavirus funding must be fully paid for, a rarity for emergency spending measures. Democrats couldn’t come up with a deal that worked for both sides, and an effort to pass $16 billion in new aid collapsed in March.

Working with Romney, Senate Democrats then agreed on $10 billion that would largely be redirected from existing coronavirus aid programs. But even that scaled-back approach met Republican objections, as GOP lawmakers set their sights on trying force a vote on immigration policy. They targeted Biden’s decision to resume allowing migrants from Mexico to seek asylum, which former president Donald Trump had barred in the name of public health. The GOP push scuttled any hopes of resolving the dispute by early April. Adding to the headaches, some Senate Democrats — including those who are vulnerable in this year’s elections — seemed inclined to join with Republicans in a vote that might have delivered a public rebuke to Biden.

After agreeing to split the coronavirus aid from the Ukraine assistance, Democrats found themselves struggling again to overcome GOP objections. Schumer and his allies cannot act in the narrowly divided Senate without the help of Republicans, some of whom on Tuesday questioned if another burst of covid cash is even necessary.

“If you’re going to do anything, you’re going to need to find it … in money we’ve already appropriated for it,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), explaining that Republicans’ approach stems in part from a belief the virus has become “endemic and manageable.”

House approves nearly $40 billion in aid to Ukraine as it fights off Russian aggression

The work is set to start in the House, where Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), the leader of the Appropriations Committee, is readying a new aid package — one that might add money and scope to the Senate’s initial $10 billion bipartisan plan. Democrats have weighed whether it is possible to tack on aid that would help distribute vaccines to nations in need, according to a person familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity to describe private talks.

Lawmakers in both parties have previously supported such spending, which can help prevent the incubation of new variants, and the Biden administration tried to fund the idea in its initial March request. Speaking to reporters late Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) signaled it remains a top issue for her caucus. “We’re overdue on passing the covid relief, and that is of the highest priority for us, at home and again globally as well ,” she said.

But the House push could add to its overall cost, potentially upsetting the delicate if imperiled deal in the Senate. Some Democrats in the chamber, meanwhile, acknowledged that $10 billion is probably insufficient in the first place.

“We’re open to expand it,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters.

But Democrats face an uphill battle in selling an even larger aid package to skeptical fiscal hawks in the Republican Party. Asked about the discussions to expand the price tag beyond $10 billion, Romney said Tuesday: “Nope, we’ve got a deal at ten, let’s get it done.”

Other Republicans said they wouldn’t back down on immigration. Speaking to reporters at his weekly news conference, McConnell pointed to the “bipartisan demand” for the Senate to reinstate the border restrictions, adding about the coronavirus aid package: “That’s the context in which that vote ought to occur.”

Schumer, however, has declined to commit to a vote on a such an amendment. At his own news conference this week, the Democratic leader maintained the Senate would wait to see what the House could pass once they dispatched with Ukraine aid.

Schumer then pointed a finger at his GOP foes, blasting them for months of obstruction. “The bottom line is very simple,” he said. “Our Republican friends should not be blocking covid legislation.”

A federal court could decide imminently on a challenge to Biden’s rollback of the rules, known as Title 42. Privately, many Democrats grouse that Republicans are likely to raise additional objections, slowing down needed coronavirus aid. And that is to say nothing of the complicated politics of immigration, as GOP leaders look to seize on the stalled aid package in election year — hoping to force Democrats to cast a vote on a sensitive political issue in blatant defiance of the president.

“I sympathize with them,” Durbin said, expressing some anxiety that the debate might come down to the border issue. “Schumer has tried to get us into a circumstance where [the vote doesn’t happen]. There’s some things he just can’t achieve.”