WASHINGTON (AP) – The U.S. is headed for “many unnecessary losses of life,” the Biden administration says, if Congress fails to allocate billions more dollars to prepare for the next wave of the pandemic. But the quest for that money lingers, the latest casualty of the election-year deadlock that has deadlocked or destroyed a multitude of Democratic priorities.
President Joe Biden’s call for funding for vaccines, tests and treatments has met opposition from Republicans, who have conflated the struggle with precarious immigration policies. Congress is on hiatus and the next steps are uncertain, despite warnings from White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, From Harmful Consequences of ‘Every Day We Wait’
Government officials say they are running out of money to stock up on, or even start ordering, the latest vaccines, tests and treatments. Funds are also lacking to compensate doctors who treat uninsured patients and to help poor countries fight the pandemic.
House and Senate Democrats have been at odds over how to resolve the standoff and even over which house should vote first. It’s an open question whether they’ll ever get the GOP votes they need to push the legislation through the 50-50 Senate, and the outlook in the tightly divided House is also unclear.
“There is still an urgency to pass a COVID relief package,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said last week. “It is very, very necessary.”
As COVID-19 cases trend upwards, the FDA has approved a new, first-of-its-kind over-the-counter COVID-19 test. (CNN, LABCORP, CINCINNATI CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)
Optimists are hoping the measure could go into effect once Congress returns next week. Pessimists say that without a quick fix, Democrats may not have enough clout to get the money passed by early fall. Then they could wrap it in legislation likely needed to fund the government — a bill that would avert a federal shutdown, a pre-election distraction that Republicans are keen to avoid.
The bunch of marginalized Democratic initiatives have grown this year, a victim of GOP opposition and rebellions by centrists like Senator Joe Manchin, DW.Va. Victims include bills on voting rights, health care, the environment, taxes, gun restrictions, abortion rights, police tactics, and an investigation into the 2021 Capitol storm by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
While lawmakers approved massive packages through September to fund federal agencies and help Ukraine fend off the Russian invasion, other priorities are dead or drifting, even as the days of Democrats who lead Congress are likely to dwindle. Republicans are being favored to gain control of the House of Representatives in November’s election and could also capture the Senate, and Democrats’ frustration is evident.
“So far it hasn’t moved,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said of Biden’s recent $22.5 billion proposal for COVID-19, which he first submitted to Congress three months ago. “But then there is no sensible gun legislation and no voting rights either.”
“The 50-50 Senate sucks,” she said.
The COVID money is needed quickly, officials say. Their warnings are linked to over 1 million US deaths and a new variant that is hospitalizing over 100,000 Americans and killing more than 300 every day. Both numbers are increasing.
Officials say the lack of fresh funds means the US is falling behind other countries already lining up for supplies needed for the fall and winter. That has led Jha to budget for the possibility that Congress won’t provide any new money at all, threatening painful decisions about what to do if there aren’t enough vaccines or therapeutics for everyone who needs them.
“It would be awful,” Jha recently told reporters. “I think we would see a lot of unnecessary deaths if that happened.”
Congress has allocated $370 billion to purchase supplies, research and other public health initiatives to fight the pandemic, according to administrative statistics obtained by The Associated Press. About $14 billion of that was unspent or uncommitted as of April 5, the documents show, serious money but an amount the government says is below final needs.
Most Republicans are skeptical about additional pandemic funding. “I have a hard time believing there isn’t enough money and not enough flexibility” to use it, said Sen. Kevin Cramer, RN.D.
Contrary to intuition, but unsurprising to the perpetually confusing Senate, one persistent conundrum that is bogging down Democrats is immigration.
Senate Republicans are demanding a vote on changing pandemic legislation with language retaining Trump-era curbs that made it easier to bar migrants from entering the United States, citing COVID-19
A federal judge blocked Biden from lifting those restrictions. Liberals want Congress to remove the crackdown, but moderate Democrats in both houses facing tough re-elections want to vote to keep it.
The result: testy splits between the two ideological factions of Democrats and tricky questions for party leaders on how to resolve them and launch a pandemic package.
Her task is compounded by disputes between House and Senate Democrats over why the COVID-19 battle remains unresolved.
Senate Democrats note that a $15.6 billion bipartisan pandemic compromise was poised for passage in the House in March, until progressive Democrats in that chamber rebelled against spending cuts to pay for it, and that let money slip away. “We’re waiting for the House to send us something,” Schumer said last week.
House Democrats say even if they do, the biggest hurdle will still be the Senate, where 10 GOP votes will be needed to reach that chamber’s usual 60-vote threshold for passage. They note that an April deal between Schumer and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for $10 billion in COVID-19 funds collapsed after Republicans called for the immigration vote.
“We want to get COVID-19 done, but the only obstacle right now is the United States Senate,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., recently told reporters.
The Republicans are waiting for the next step by the Democrats.
“I would imagine that by this point, well over half of our members will be voting against, no matter what. So the question is, what are you doing to make it acceptable to 10 or 12″ Republican senators,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the GOP leadership. “And I don’t know.”
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