Democrats yank COVID relief after revolt by own members
Facing a revolt from rank-and-file Democrats, party leaders on Wednesday yanked billions of dollars in emergency funding from a $1.5 trillion government funding package — a move that will allow for passage of the larger package but leaves the fate of the pandemic relief up in the air.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) confirmed the news in a “Dear Colleague” letter on Wednesday afternoon, largely blaming Republicans for the impasse that sparked the stunning last-minute revision to the larger spending package.
“Because of Republican insistence — and the resistance by a number of our Members to making those offsets — we will go back to the Rules Committee to remove COVID funding and accommodate the revised bill,” she wrote. “We must proceed with the omnibus today, which includes emergency funding for Ukraine and urgent funding to meet the needs of America’s families.”
“It is heartbreaking to remove the COVID funding, and we must continue to fight for urgently needed COVID assistance,” she continued, “but unfortunately that will not be included in this bill.”
Pelosi placed the blame largely on Republicans, but it was irate members of her own caucus who ultimately forced her hand.
The move came after a tumultuous morning of internal talks between Pelosi, leaders of the Appropriations Committee and other key panels, and a number of lawmakers who were up in arms that the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package — released just hours earlier — proposed to offset $15.6 billion in new COVID-19 spending by clawing back unspent money sent to certain states as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill signed by President Biden one year ago.
It was lawmakers from those states who threatened to block passage of the omnibus unless the clawback provision was removed.
“I’m not going to tolerate that,” said Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D), whose home state of Michigan was one of the states facing the clawback. “If they can pull that out, we might be able to move forward.”
“This deal was cut behind closed doors. Members found out this morning, this is completely unacceptable,” Rep. Annie Craig (D-Minn.) said shortly after leaving Pelosi’s office earlier on Wednesday.
Craig told reporters her state was one of roughly 30 that would see the previously appropriated funds pulled, before adding more than $250 million to her state was “what is at risk here today.”
Removal of the COVID-19 funding paves the way for passage of the omnibus bill Wednesday afternoon, when Democrats are scheduled to begin their annual issues conference in Philadelphia — a trip that was postponed slightly by the last-minute objections.
The package, introduced just after midnight, extends funding through the end of the fiscal year. Negotiated by leaders from both parties, it was designed to win support from both sides of the aisle, including a $42 billion increase in defense spending, favored by Republicans, and a $46 billion bump in nondefense programs, largely championed by Democrats.
It also includes $13.6 billion to help Ukraine defend against Russia’s invasion, divided between military spending and humanitarian aid.
But it was the COVID-19 funding that caused the problems for Democratic leaders Wednesday morning.
Democrats had initially proposed not to offset the cost of the new COVID-19 relief, leaning on borrowed money, as they did for the Ukraine aid, which would add to the budget deficit. Republicans balked at that idea, however, and Democratic negotiators responded by proposing to offset the $15.6 billion with funding sent to states last year, as part of the American Rescue Plan, but not yet spent.
It’s unclear when the House will try again to act on the administration’s COVID-19 funding request, which the White House has characterized as crucial in the fight against the ongoing pandemic. Pelosi’s letter was silent on that issue.
Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), vice chair of House Democratic Caucus, told reporters after Pelosi’s announcement on Wednesday that leaders have heard current coronavirus-related funding could begin to lapse in early spring.
“We’ve been hearing May-ish,” he said. “So it gives us a little bit of time, but not much.”
This story was updated at 3:13 p.m.
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