Biden request for COVID-19 funds faces resistance from lawmakers
The Biden administration’s request for $30 billion in additional funds to fight COVID-19 is facing resistance from lawmakers.
The administration, in talks with lawmakers this week, outlined the need for the additional funds for areas such as vaccines, testing capacity and treatments, though it is not yet a formal request. Officials said previous funds to fight the virus have already been spent or allocated.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the additional funds are needed “to ensure that we are well prepared to stay ahead of the virus” beyond the current omicron surge.
The request is facing outright opposition from many congressional Republicans, and even some Democrats are not enthusiastic about the idea.
The COVID-19 funding talks come as a broader government funding bill with a March 11 deadline could serve as a vehicle. But with the omicron surge on the decline and inflation growing, some lawmakers say it is time to move on.
“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 Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), the top Republican on the House 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,” she added.
In the Senate, Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, did not slam the door all the way, but sounded a note of skepticism, saying he thinks there could be unused money already appropriated that can be repurposed.
“I think we need to scrub that,” he said of the request. “Where are we going to get the money?”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who sometimes crosses the aisle to work with Democrats, also threw cold water on the idea.
“More spending could exacerbate high inflation rates,” he wrote on Twitter. “We must push for full accountability of the money that has already been appropriated to expose waste.”
The Biden administration, though, sent lawmakers a chart this week showing that there is $0 in unallocated funds across every category listed, from testing to vaccines to the Strategic National Stockpile, according to a document obtained by The Hill.
A Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said new funds would be used in “securing more life-saving treatments and vaccines, sustaining testing capacity, and investing in research and development of next-generation vaccines.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the top Republican on the Appropriations health subcommittee, sounded more open to the funds than some of his colleagues.
He noted that he had previously questioned whether unspent funds were still available, but added, “Frankly in the categories they’re asking for money, the other money has all been spent or committed to the purposes it was appropriated for.”
But on the Democratic side, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (Vt.) expressed hesitancy about complicating the larger government funding talks, which face a March 11 deadline, with the COVID-19 fight.
“I’m not eager to add anything,” he told reporters earlier this week, noting the government funding talks had already taken “several months of negotiation.”
In the House, Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said she is “reviewing” the request.
“I am carefully reviewing the information the Biden administration has provided about funding required to respond to the coronavirus,” she said in a statement. “I will work with my colleagues to meet these important public health needs at home and around the world.”
Adding another wrinkle, the Biden administration on Friday requested $5 billion for the global COVID-19 response.
Advocates and a group of congressional Democrats have been pushing for months for the administration to do more to vaccinate the world, not only for humanitarian reasons but also to help prevent new variants from forming that could evade vaccines and threaten the United States.
The $5 billion is significantly less than the $17 billion for global COVID-19 response that the advocates and lawmakers had been pushing for in the coming spending package.
Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) expressed hope Congress could eventually come together on the overall request.
“The Biden Administration has told us more resources will be needed pretty urgently so we have enough tests, vaccines, and treatments, and so that we are able to continue to detect new variants,” she said. “We’re looking at this carefully and I hope we can all agree on the importance of making sure we’re ready for the next phase of the pandemic.”