‘Urgent’ COVID-19 funding hangs in balance amid partisan fight
Funding for the next phase of the COVID-19 fight is hanging in the balance amid a showdown over new spending in Congress.
The White House is calling for $22.5 billion for “immediate” needs ahead of next week’s government funding deadline, but Republicans are resisting the request, saying the billions already provided to fight the virus should be spent first before Congress approves new money.
The administration, though, says the previous money is “nearly all” used up.
Without approval of the request for new funding, the White House says critical steps to fight the virus and prepare for a future variant will have to stop.
“Let me be very clear: This is an urgent request,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday.
Included in the request is $1.5 billion for next-generation “pan-COVID” vaccines that can work against multiple variants of the virus. Psaki also said testing capacity will drop “within weeks” if funding to sustain it is not provided, which would potentially require months of ramp-up if a new variant causes another surge.
The administration also said funding is needed to purchase more antiviral pills, like the highly effective Pfizer treatment Paxlovid.
Acting Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young wrote in a letter to Congress that without quick action “available supply will decline as other countries place orders, creating a significant risk that the U.S. will be unable to secure the supply it needs.”
“By September we anticipate our supply of oral antivirals will run out if additional pills are not purchased now,” Psaki said.
Asked on Thursday for a response on the White House’s argument that money is needed for pressing issues with the virus, Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, replied: “Let’s spend the money we’ve already appropriated.”
“There’s billions of dollars out there that have been appropriated that haven’t been spent, and I think they ought to spend that money first before they start asking us to borrow,” he later added.
Doug Andres, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said there is over $100 billion in state and local funding from the American Rescue Plan remaining.
Asked about state and local funding, an administration official said: “Congress designed these funds to be used over time, with a significant portion not available to us now.”
“These funds will continue to be used as designed by Congress, and states and localities are anticipating and counting on these funds for important purposes, just like they’ve used the first tranche of funds,” the official added.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) led a letter with 35 other Senate Republicans asking the administration for an accounting of how COVID-19 money has already been spent before approving new money. A spokesperson for the Utah senator said Friday they had not received a formal response to the letter.
The administration official said, “We’ve regularly briefed Congress on a bipartisan basis on the status of COVID relief funds.”
A chart the administration previously sent to lawmakers and obtained by The Hill shows $0 in funding remaining unallocated across every category listed, from vaccines to treatments to the Strategic National Stockpile.
Democratic congressional leaders say they are standing firm in pushing for new funds.
“Some Republicans may think [money] should have been spent differently, but the point is that it has been spent,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.). “We can’t pull those dollars back. And we need to provide new funding for possible variants.”
“Either we act now to secure the progress we have made, or we risk backsliding if another contagious variant emerges in the fall and winter,” Schumer said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added she hoped Republicans “would see the wisdom of the science of what we need to do in terms of COVID.”
Some advocates have been concerned that the administration did not make its formal request for COVID-19 funds sooner.
The administration had previously informally briefed Congress on the need for $30 billion focused on the domestic response and $5 billion for global needs, but the formal request sent this week was somewhat smaller.
Advocates have also criticized the $5 billion request for global needs, including vaccinating people in low-income countries, as far short of what is needed to help prevent new variants from forming around the globe.
But even that $5 billion is not guaranteed amid the broader COVID-19 funding fight.
An array of Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (Ill.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) said in a joint statement on Thursday that the administration’s $5 billion request is “well below” what is needed, but urged its passage.
“The global effort to vaccinate the world and end this pandemic is therefore fundamentally dependent on our colleagues in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, coming together to pass additional foreign aid funding,” they said.
The White House also unveiled a lengthy plan for fighting the next phase of the virus this week, which won praise from many experts, but it requires new funding to be implemented.
The White House said even the $22.5 billion request is not enough to fully fund the plan, and it anticipates asking for additional funding in the “weeks ahead.” Future COVID-19 requests are sure to face a tough hill to climb in Congress too, given the fight over the current spending.
It remains to be seen if lawmakers can work out the current impasse.
Asked Thursday if it was possible at least some new COVID-19 money could make it into the government funding package next week, Shelby replied: “It’s always possible.”