Health care workers screen a patient for COVID-19 at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in 2020 in Virginia. (Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Congress remains undecided over how exactly to provide billions more to fight the COVID-19 pandemic as a new variant spreads throughout states and public health officials caution the virus doesn’t show signs of fading away.
Negotiators were close to an agreement for about $10 billion in federal spending, but as of Friday, several lawmakers remained skeptical, the text of a bill was far from complete and details of the compromise were murky at best.
“We are getting close to a final agreement that would garner bipartisan support,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said from the floor on Thursday.
Democrats and Republicans had clinched a bipartisan deal in early March to add $15.6 billion for additional testing, treatment and vaccines to a much larger government funding bill.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, had to pull that agreement after numerous lawmakers — including from her own party — expressed frustration that some of the new spending was paid for by clawing back previously approved COVID-19 money for state governments.
During the three weeks since, the Biden administration has raised multiple alarms about the public health fallout that will take place if lawmakers cannot quickly provide the full $22.5 billion it requested in early March.
Here are five questions as Congress searches for a final, bipartisan deal:
Who are the negotiators?
Utah GOP Sen. Mitt Romney has taken the lead in talks with Democrats about how much the bill should spend and how Congress should pay for added public health needs.
Schumer, a New York Democrat, has been meeting regularly with Romney this week. Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham and Washington state Democratic Sen. Patty Murray are also involved in the talks.
How soon will this get done?
Schumer said Thursday afternoon he wants to hold floor votes before the chamber leaves on April 8 for its two-week spring recess.
Republicans want time to see a final bill text as well as a detailed report from the Congressional Budget Office on potential costs before allowing the legislation to move forward. Whether that must happen in early April is up for debate among the GOP senators.
The top Republican on the Senate spending panel, Richard Shelby of Alabama, said this week he didn’t “feel any urgency” to advance a COVID-19 spending bill.
“Unless there’s a new variant that really takes off, things seem to be going in the right direction,” Shelby said.
How will it be paid for?
Republicans say they want the entire bill to be paid for with money Congress has already approved for the pandemic. That is a move that would avoid adding to the deficit, but that also slows and complicates negotiations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the bill needs to be “entirely paid for out of money that’s already in the pipeline by reprogramming it for whatever amount [Democrats] can justify to get the job done.”
The Biden administration says the funding is for an emergency and therefore doesn’t need to be offset by pulling back funding approved but not yet spent.
The White House is, however, leaving “the mechanism of finally coming to an agreement” to Congress, according to Kate Bedingfield, communications director.
What about vaccines in other countries?
The biggest dispute over the tentative $10 billion agreement is that it leaves out about $5 billion in funding meant to help vaccinate people around the world.
Pelosi said during a Thursday press conference that leaving out billions for global vaccine efforts was “shameful” and would likely mean Congress needs to negotiate another bill this summer.
“I think what the Republicans are doing is, either they don’t care or they don’t know. But it is wrong,” Pelosi said.
Schumer said later in the day that lawmakers were “working diligently to finalize language, scoring and a final agreement on what should be funded in the final covid package — both domestic and international.”
What if the money doesn’t get approved?
The timing of a final agreement as well as floor votes in the House and Senate will determine how much of an impact the stalled agreement will have on efforts to diagnose and treat COVID-19.
President Joe Biden said that the “consequences of inaction are severe, and they’ll only grow with time.”
The federal government has already had to cut the amount of monoclonal antibodies it is sending to state governments, and expects to run out of the current supply by the end of May.
Testing capacity won’t last much beyond June and preventive treatments for immunocompromised individuals will be exhausted this fall.
The vaccine supply is expected to begin running out in the fall without new funding.
In Virginia, state health officials said they were notified in March that a program that reimburses Virginia providers for offering testing and treatment to uninsured patients, administered by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, had run out of money, bringing those reimbursements to a sudden halt.
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