Congress nears finish line on spending package that omits aid for COVID tests, treatment
((Image by Anton Petrus /Getty)
WASHINGTON — Congress is close to clearing a massive government funding package that includes billions in aid to Ukraine, but Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a stalemate over additional pandemic relief.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that without billions more in funding, federal testing capacity would begin declining this month, free testing and treatment for Americans without health insurance would end in April and the supply of monoclonal antibodies would run out in May.
“We need this money. So without additional resources from Congress, the results are dire,” Psaki said.
Negotiators reached bipartisan agreement behind closed doors earlier this week to provide $15 billion for COVID-19 following a $22.5 billion request from the Biden administration.
But Democrats from several states strongly objected to party leaders pulling back previously approved pandemic aid to state governments as one of the ways to pay for the new federal spending.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi yanked that section of the bill out Wednesday afternoon, so the House could vote late Wednesday night to pass the $1.5 trillion government funding package as well as the military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
The House took two votes on the package, an odd but not completely unheard-of floor maneuver.
The first 361-69 vote sent the bills funding the Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security and Justice departments; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; National Science Foundation; and some Ukrainian aid to the Senate.
The second 260-171 vote approved appropriations for the Agriculture, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation and Veterans departments; Congress; the Supreme Court; dozens of federal agencies; and the Ukraine aid not included in the first vote.
The package, however, was sent to the Senate as one bill and will only require one vote from senators to send the measure to President Joe Biden for his signature. The wonky House splitting process is referred to as “dividing the question.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Thursday morning he was hopeful that Congress would send Biden the measure before the end of the day.
Congress must approve some sort of funding bill before Friday at midnight to avoid a government shutdown when a temporary government spending bill expires.
The House approved a stopgap spending bill that would keep the lights on through March 15 to give the Senate more time to debate and hold votes on the larger government spending bill.
Schumer gave a floor speech applauding many of the provisions in the package, but said he was “deeply disappointed” that House leaders had to remove $15 billion in COVID-19 aid.
“COVID funding right now is all about being prepared,” Schumer said. “It will provide funding for vaccines and therapeutics and testing, which means it will be much easier to keep schools open, to keep businesses open and keep life closer to normal than it was during delta and omicron.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, did not seem to agree, saying “until 24 hours ago” the compromise agreement was “going to reprogram money away from Democrats’ wasteful spending spree that neglected COVID needs and reallocate it to vaccines and treatments for the American people.”
He said that “House Democrats mutinied against Speaker Pelosi,” leading her to remove the emergency funding.
Months of work
The so-called omnibus funding package the Senate appeared close to passing has been months in the making.
It began last year when Biden submitted his first budget request to Congress, asking lawmakers to increase domestic and foreign aid spending by 16% and to boost defense funding by 1.6%.
The proposal was met with derision from Republicans, who argued the defense funding suggestion was far too low, and the other accounts were too high.
The gulf between the two political parties grew even wider when Democrats removed long-standing policy language from the original batch of spending bills that previously barred the federal government from providing abortion services, with limited exceptions.
The process was at a complete standstill in September as the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1 inched closer. Congress then passed a series of three temporary government funding measures to avoid a shutdown. The latest of those stopgap spending bills expires on Friday at midnight.
While talks seemed bleak late last year, Democrats and Republicans reached agreement on a “framework” for the dozen annual government spending bills last month.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate then got to work re-writing the original batch of Democratic spending bills to match the somewhat mysterious contours of that framework agreement.
The measure is significantly different from Biden’s original funding proposal, with Congress boosting defense funding by about 6% and increasing domestic and foreign aid coffers by 6.7% this fiscal year.
Those funding increases work out to $782 billion for defense and $730 billion for the remaining nondefense accounts.
Debate on the measure started in the House Wednesday morning, but stalled out as Democratic lawmakers from states that would have lost out on millions in federal funding from previous COVID-19 relief packages aired their grievances with Pelosi.
Pelosi said in a statement it was “heartbreaking” to pull the COVID-19 funding from the package. She added later in the day during a press conference that the compromise on paying for the new COVID-19 funding with prior COVID-19 funding for states was part of the legislative “sausage-making” process.
House Democrats later released a standalone $15.6 billion COVID-19 bill that doesn’t pay for the new pandemic funding by pulling back previously approved relief funding.
House Democratic leaders originally set that for a Wednesday night floor vote, but pulled the bill at the last minute as votes went late into the night and Democrats needed to board buses to get to Philadelphia for their policy retreat.
Psaki said Thursday during the White House press briefing that conversations about the COVID-19 funding would continue between the administration and Capitol Hill.
However, no bipartisan path forward on the COVID-19 aid emerged as the Senate headed toward final passage of the government funding and Ukraine relief bill.
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