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Democrats seek $21 billion to fight coronavirus and other outbreaks

New emergency funds proposed in the Senate focus on the coronavirus pandemic but also provide flexibility to respond to new public-health challenges

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) at a Senate hearing in May. Leahy, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, released a proposal Thursday to spend $21 billion to combat the coronavirus and monkeypox. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Pool/Washington Post/AP)

Top Senate Democrats on Thursday proposed $21 billion in new emergency funds to combat the coronavirus and prepare for other emerging outbreaks, including potentially monkeypox, hoping to boost tests, treatments and vaccines in response to growing public health threats.

The new spending, sought as part of a package of bills that fund the government for the next fiscal year, reflects a growing fear in Washington that the country has failed to learn its lesson from the coronavirus pandemic and risks falling behind — particularly in the face of new crises.

White House shifts pandemic money to vaccines, cutting other programs

Chiefly written by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the bill aims to set aside $16 billion for a key program at the Department of Health and Human Services. It calls on the agency to use that money to fight the coronavirus through tests, vaccines, medical supplies, and research for existing and future strains. Democrats also proposed investing another $5 billion for supporting other countries in their fight against the pandemic.

In doing so, party lawmakers said the emergency proposal would give the government latitude to shift some of the new funds toward any novel public health challenges. That could include monkeypox, for which the United States lacks a robust-enough supply of vaccines and treatments. The money is not specifically, exclusively dedicated to responding to the virus, although it may still augment federal response to the disease. The White House privately has estimated it may need billions alone just to combat that monkeypox outbreak.

What to know about monkeypox symptoms, treatments and protection

The new push for funding arrives as public health experts and congressional Democrats are once again sounding urgent alarms, fearful the country is losing ground in the fight to keep both viruses in check. But past attempts to secure health spending, backed by the president, repeatedly have faltered as Republicans raise fiscal concerns — a dynamic that threatens the new funding push, as well.

With the coronavirus, the White House has warned for months that it desperately needs new federal aid, especially to secure access to the next generation of vaccines, which the government hopes to roll out early this fall. But sustained GOP opposition has left the administration no choice but to begin rationing the funds that remain — dialing back research and manufacturing.

“The need is urgent, and this emergency supplemental funding bill provides the necessary resources to prepare for the current and anticipated surge in cases this fall and winter, save lives, and support our efforts to stamp out this virus here and abroad,” Leahy said in a statement.

Monkeypox presents its own challenges, because epidemiologists have warned that governments have only so much time to curtail its spread or risk its becoming endemic. In a private presentation, first reported by The Washington Post, White House officials estimated it could cost nearly $7 billion if the United States hopes to mount a response matching “the scope and urgency of the current situation.” It shared that figure separate from its calls for another round of coronavirus aid.

U.S. may need $7 billion for monkeypox, Biden administration estimates

Leahy on Thursday unveiled the spending plan alongside Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the leader of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a top appropriator overseeing foreign aid. It comes as Democrats prepare to release 12 bills that set spending levels for key federal agencies for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

The House has started advancing its version of spending legislation, having passed more than $400 billion for agriculture, housing, infrastructure and education-related agencies last week.

In funding the government, lawmakers face a ticking clock: They have to approve spending for the 2023 fiscal year by Sept. 30 or current appropriations will lapse, triggering a government shutdown. Congress either can broker a new deal or choose to sustain agencies’ budgets at their current amounts under a temporary agreement known as a continuing resolution.

Under Biden, the discussions often have proven bitterly partisan, with Republicans insisting on spending cuts that would deeply curtail the president’s plans to boost federal health care, science, education and social service programs. Even when the two parties managed to broker a $1.5 trillion deal in March, they still failed to find common ground on Democrats’ attempts to approve billions of dollars in aid responding to the coronavirus.

Since then, top White House officials have ratcheted up their calls on Congress to act. Speaking to reporters at a briefing last week, Ashish Jha, the administration’s covid-19 response coordinator, stressed that the nation had only made headway against the virus because it had adequate funds at its disposal — money it needs again “to prepare for the fall and winter.”

“The reason we have seen so much progress is because we’ve had the resources to do the things that are necessary for the American people,” Jha said. “And if we take our foot off the gas and stop, you know, all this work that we are doing, we will slide backwards.”