Senators shrinking size of COVID deal amid disagreements
A group of senators negotiating a potential deal for new coronavirus relief is preparing to scale back the overall size of the package amid a disagreement over how to pay for it, sources told The Hill.
The bipartisan group has been negotiating for days over how to revive the $15.6 billion in coronavirus aid that got stripped out of a government funding bill earlier this month, with senators indicating earlier Wednesday that they agreed on the size of a potential deal.
But Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, told The Hill on Wednesday night that the size of a potential deal was being scaled back to roughly $10 billion and that the group was going to drop roughly $5 billion in global coronavirus funding out of a potential agreement.
“I don’t think the Dems would agree to offsets that would allow them to cover that. So it’s dropped down to the size that they were willing to pay for,” Thune told The Hill.
“That $5 billion piece could be easily part of the package, but they are just reluctant to repurpose funds, and there’s a whole pile of them sitting out there,” he added.
A second source confirmed to The Hill that the size of a deal was getting scaled down to roughly $10 billion and that the $5 billion in global funds, which were expected to go in part to helping boost vaccination rates in other countries, were being dropped out.
Spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee, didn’t immediately respond to questions about whether the deal was being scaled down.
Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), who has helped lead the negotiations for Republicans, didn’t deny that the scope of a possible agreement was being shrunk but, with a laugh, declined to comment.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), another member of the negotiating group and the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s state and foreign operations subcommittee, said, “Stay tuned.”
The group negotiating a possible coronavirus deal has been negotiating throughout Wednesday as it faced ramped-up pressure to try to cut an agreement before the Senate leaves for a two-week break starting on Friday, April 8.
“We are not yet at the finish line, but we will keep working throughout the day, and I am committed to working with the other side reasonably and in good faith,” Schumer said earlier Wednesday.
“The consequences of not getting COVID funding are really serious — scary, almost,” he added.
Schumer met with Sens. Romney, Graham, Richard Burr (N.C.) and Roy Blunt (Mo.) earlier Wednesday. He then met with the group as well as Murray, who is also the No. 3 Senate Democrat, on Wednesday night.
Even as sources told The Hill that the overall size of the possible deal was being scaled back, GOP senators involved in the talks huddled off and on in Thune’s office. Negotiators also haven’t announced that they’ve reached an agreement, but they believe that they are close.
Congressional leaders initially struck a deal to include $15.6 billion in coronavirus relief funding into a sweeping government funding bill that passed earlier this month. That funding would have been fully paid for in part by redirecting funds previously allocated for state and local governments. That decision sparked fierce pushback from some House Democrats, and leadership pulled the coronavirus aid out of the government funding bill.
Republicans are insisting that any new coronavirus relief be covered by a coronavirus bill passed by Democrats last year. Romney and Schumer have been swapping offers on a list of potential ways to pay for a deal throughout the week, with Republicans arguing there is more than enough to cover a bill for the full $15.6 billion.
The Biden administration has warned that the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic is hanging in the balance.
Without new funds, the administration is cutting back on the distribution of monoclonal antibody treatments to states, while a program to pay for tests and treatments for the uninsured is out of money. Officials also say there is not enough money to purchase additional booster shots for all Americans if a fourth vaccine dose is needed.
“Just as we reached the critical turning point in this fight, Congress has to provide the funding America needs to continue to fight COVID-19,” President Biden said. “This isn’t partisan. It’s medicine.”