Lawmakers aren’t eager to spend big — again — on a pandemic many would just as soon declare over.
President Joe Biden’s cabinet members and public health experts say they are running out of money to battle Covid-19 and need tens of billions more dollars to continue vaccination, testing and medicine distribution efforts at home and abroad.
But the push for a Covid supplemental bill, which would ride alongside the package to fund the government through September that Congress is trying to pass by mid-March, is encountering bipartisan resistance. GOP lawmakers argue more spending will exacerbate inflation and that the worst of the pandemic is in the past. And even Democrats who support the additional public health funds worry the effort could derail the fragile negotiations on the core bill to fund the government by injecting partisan disagreements about how to address the pandemic into discussions over funding the military and federal agencies.
“I’m not eager to add anything,” Senate Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told reporters this week. “It has taken several months of negotiations to get where we are, and I’m very reluctant to reopen it for anything else.”
Sen Ben Cardin (D-Md.) told POLITICO that despite concerns about the trajectory of the pandemic, many Democrats believe the focus needs to remain on the government spending bill.
“Anything that detracts from that is a heavier lift,” he said. “So, there is a reluctance to do a supplemental but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”
Because both the spending legislation and a possible Covid bill would have to be bipartisan, the fate of the supplemental pandemic funds now depends on corralling enough hesitant lawmakers in both parties to push it through.
While the White House has not formally sent over a request for the new money, the Department of Health and Human Services outlined its needs for about $30 billion in a call with lawmakers on Tuesday, with Secretary Xavier Becerra making the case that winter’s Omicron wave wiped out the administration’s reserves.
An aide to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), confirmed that request includes about $18 billion for Covid treatments and vaccines, $5 billion for testing, $3 billion to cover care for the uninsured, $3.7 billion to develop vaccines to protect against future variants and $500 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health surveillance work.
“We are talking with the administration right now about their specific needs on everything from testing to vaccines to therapeutics — needs that have not gone away,” Murray, the Senate’s top health appropriator, told POLITICO. “We have to make sure that when the next variant comes along, we’re not caught unprepared.”
But the Senate’s top Republican in the negotiations, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, struck a skeptical note on Wednesday, telling reporters he and his colleagues would have to “scrub” the HHS request. “Where are we going to get the money?” he asked.
“Once you start a vehicle moving, a lot of people want to ride on it,” he complained, referring to the government funding package that most consider the best and potentially only shot for the Covid-relief funds to pass.
Many of Shelby’s GOP colleagues have a blunter answer to the administration’s plea for funds: no.
“Most people think we’ve borrowed enough money from our grandchildren,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) told POLITICO. “And, I’ll tell you, inflation is the number one concern I hear from people back home. So instead of [the supplemental], I think we need to end the declaration of emergency for Covid, stop the fear mongering, and encourage people to go back to work.”
House Republicans also appear uninterested.
“Spending $30 billion more without proper oversight or a proper plan to end the public health emergency is not how we give Americans their freedom back,” said Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the top GOP member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “It’s time to unwind this pandemic of bureaucracy, get government out of the way, and allow Americans to return to normal life.”
Lawmakers resistant to the new spending point out that Congress has already approved nearly $6 trillion in emergency Covid spending since the pandemic began two years ago and that some of that money has yet to be exhausted.
Democrats and outside health experts warn that the administration’s work fighting Covid abroad is also running out of cash. The White House has told its agencies that nearly $11 billion is needed to help vaccinate the rest of the world to prevent new variants from emerging, plus send supplies, medical workers and humanitarian aid to hard-hit regions.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is among those trying to convince her colleagues that the funds would be a “smart investment” that would save the government money in the long run and help prevent another massive surge in Covid cases.
“The Biden administration is trying to do the right thing and make sure they have the resources to be prepared for the next Covid variant and to beat back this virus around the world, because we’ll never get out from underneath it if we don’t take a worldwide approach,” she said.
Warren acknowledges the precarious state of the talks, but she and other supporters of the Covid money insist there is still a path forward, even if the funds don’t get attached to the government spending bill.
“If we don’t get it done, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” she told POLITICO. “We may have other vehicles that move.”
But many others see the funding legislation as Covid funding’s best and likely only chance for passage, given that the divided Congress, with its eyes on November’s midterms, has struggled to pass even basic spending bills and has seen hopes for bigger policy overhauls crumble away.
“The idea that you can have a standalone bill of emergency funding riding separate from a must-pass bill in an election year? That’s hilarious,” said a public health advocate familiar with talks on the Hill, granted anonymity to speak candidly. “That’s not going to happen. So, what is the plan for getting this through?”
Congress’ failure to approve the supplemental health funds, experts warn, could endanger the already beleaguered public health system’s capacity to respond to a range of diseases in addition to another Covid surge, and ultimately cost more. In addition to the supplemental bill to meet immediate needs, they’re also pushing for legislation to create a permanent funding stream for future pandemic and health crises.
“States and cities can’t make long-term commitments or budget or hire people if they don’t know if they’re getting one-time emergency money or permanent funds, and they can’t deficit spend like the federal government can,” said Georges Benjamin, the president of the American Public Health Association. “We need some surety. The boom-and-bust cycle is the most destructive thing we could possibly have. If you did it with the military, we’d be totally defenseless. But somehow we’re willing to do it for public health.”