A congressional deal for billions of dollars in additional coronavirus funding appeared all but dead Thursday after Senate Republicans accused the White House of being dishonest about the nation’s pandemic funding needs.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who brought the Senate to the brink of a bipartisan $10 billion coronavirus funding deal in March, said the Biden administration had provided “patently false” information about its inability to buy additional vaccines, treatments and supplies. He cited a newly announced White House plan to repurpose some existing funds to cover the country’s most pressing vaccine and treatment needs.
“Washington operates on a relationship of trust between the respective parties,” Romney said at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing Thursday, noting the White House had repeatedly claimed it had exhausted coronavirus funding and could not redirect other spending. “I hope that there’s an appreciation that for the administration to say they could not purchase these things and then, after several months, divert some funds and then purchase them is unacceptable and makes our ability to work together . . . very much shaken to the core.”
Biden officials said last week they had no choice but to repurpose about $10 billion from other coronavirus priorities, such as testing, to purchase more vaccine and treatments, since Congress had not been able to reach agreement.
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In interviews Thursday, three administration officials insisted that the White House had been transparent about its needs and spending and that Republicans had continually found new reasons to object to the efforts to secure additional coronavirus funds.
“We’ve tried to meet Republicans on their requests, and they keep moving the goal posts,” said one official, who was not authorized to address the issue and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Going back to January, we’ve been working with members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, on the funding needs for the covid response,” White House spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a statement, touting “countless” briefings and conference calls and hundreds of pages of funding documents shared with lawmakers. “We’ve also been crystal clear about the consequences of a lack of funding . . . including the very real possibility that we would have to reevaluate the planned uses of existing funds.”
Biden administration officials had originally considered more than $80 billion in additional coronavirus funding late last year and laid out a $30 billion request in February. That target was cut to about $22 billion in March as Romney and other Republicans pressed the White House to account for trillions of dollars in prior coronavirus spending.
In a March 23 briefing, then-White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients warned of “severe” and “immediate” consequences if Congress failed to act, citing the near-exhaustion of funds to cover the costs of testing and treatment for uninsured Americans, reduced availability of treatments for the immunocompromised and longer-term questions about vaccine and testing capacity.
The following week, Romney, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other lawmakers announced a tentative agreement for $10 billion in new funding, but the deal collapsed as Democrats raised questions about the removal of international aid from the package and lawmakers from both parties objected to a separate plan to lift pandemic restrictions at the border.
Testifying on Thursday, senior Biden administration health officials warned that the virus is evolving to evade existing vaccine protections and that the country needs to be prepared to invest in new vaccines and treatments. Millions of vaccinated and boosted Americans have been sickened by the latest wave of omicron subvariants that has swept the country – including Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, who was forced to testify remotely because of his own infection.
“I’m deeply concerned that a lack of additional funding for other response activities will end or substantially scale back critical covid response work,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the panel’s chair, argued in her remarks that preparing the nation for the next stage of the pandemic should be a top priority for Congress.
“Democrats have been hammering this home for months – we’ve been yelling from the rooftops, warning what’s at risk if we don’t get this done,” Murray said. “The fact the administration has had to resort to allocating resources from our long-term needs to keep our short-term response afloat – that’s not a solution. That’s a stopgap. And it should be a clear sign of how urgent it is that Congress take action.”
But Romney raised questions about why the administration hadn’t moved to repurpose funding faster, and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the panel’s top Republican, rebuked Biden officials over their testimony.
“This has been the most well-orchestrated event that I’ve seen in the 28 years that I’ve been here,” Burr said. “This was designed to pressure Republicans to open a checkbook, sign the check and let the administration fill in the balance.”
The Republicans’ comments resonated beyond Capitol Hill to Wall Street, where analysts expressed doubt the administration would be able to secure 60 votes for a funding package that would pass the Senate without Romney and Burr, both of whom had spent weeks trying to help secure prior compromises.
“New COVID Funding Probably Dead,” financial-services firm Raymond James wrote in a note to investors on Thursday. “We are very skeptical more COVID money will be made available and believe the Administration will now need to move more quickly toward a system where COVID vaccines, treatments, and testing are provided through the traditional supply chain and purchasing apparatus in the U.S. health system.”
The author of that note, former Trump administration health official Chris Meekins, said in an interview that Romney’s comments seem to foreclose the prospect of future compromises. “I do not see a path to get 10 Senate Republicans to support the bill,” Meekins said.