The future of additional COVID-19 funding that the White House says it desperately needs to combat new variants and purchase updated vaccines looks increasingly uncertain after the money was left out of a must-pass aid package to Ukraine.
The money for updated vaccines, additional treatments and expanded testing is stalled despite dire warnings from the Biden administration that as many as 100 million Americans could be infected this fall and winter in a new wave, especially if tools to fight the virus are not readily available.
While the White House had originally called for COVID-19 aid to be attached to a package of funding for Ukraine, President Biden agreed to separate the two to allow the Ukraine aid to advance quicker after Republicans insisted the coronavirus funds not be added.
That leaves the Ukraine money set to advance fairly smoothly through Congress, but the COVID-19 aid left behind.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said he was “concerned” when asked if he was worried that COVID-19 funding might not happen.
“I’m sorry that the Republicans don’t share the sense of urgency,” he added.
When it comes to COVID-19 funding, Republicans are insisting on a vote to reverse the Biden administration’s move to lift a Trump-era policy at the southern border, known as Title 42, that allows for rapid expulsion of migrants in the name of public health and prevents them from seeking asylum.
Such a vote would be politically dicey for Democrats, though, given that some of their moderate members and those up for reelection would join with Republicans on the vote, splitting the 50 caucus members in the Senate.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a lead GOP negotiator on the COVID-19 funds, said Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) were putting political concerns over the funding.
“It’s very simple: If the White House goes to Leader Schumer and says, ‘We’d like to get a vote on this; let the Republicans and Democrats each have amendments,’ it’ll be voted on and it’ll pass,” Romney said. “It’s being held up for political purposes only.”
Schumer declined to answer on Tuesday whether he would allow a vote on a Title 42 amendment in order to get COVID-19 aid moving, noting the House would vote on the measure first.
“We’ll see what the House sends over,” he said. “The bottom line is very simple: Our Republican friends should not be blocking COVID legislation. We don’t know what they might throw in the bill. We don’t even know if they want to pass it. So when the House passes it, we will do everything we can to get COVID legislation passed.”
The impasse has frustrated public health advocates, who note the funding is sorely needed.
Pfizer and Moderna are working on updated vaccines that are expected to be more effective against the omicron variant and are set to be available this fall, in time to help blunt yet another cold-weather wave. But the administration says it will not have enough money to buy those updated vaccines for all eligible Americans without new funding from Congress.
Supplies of the highly effective Pfizer treatment pills known as Paxlovid are also set to run out in October or November without new funding, a senior administration official said last week.
Testing capacity will also be scaled back, leaving the country vulnerable to another shortage like it had during the surge last winter, when Americans rushed to get tested in preparation for family gatherings over the holidays.
The administration warned other countries are also getting in line to buy the limited supply of updated vaccines and treatments — which could leave the U.S. behind.
“Historians will not be able to understand how with pandemic virus a lethal threat around the world and here at home, US political leaders could not find a few billion dollars for investments with triple digit social returns,” tweeted former Obama administration economic adviser Larry Summers.
The COVID-19 funds have been stuck in multidirectional finger-pointing for months.
The money was initially set to be included in a sweeping government funding bill in March, but a last-minute revolt by a group of House Democrats, objecting to paying for the funds by cutting a small fraction of virus aid to their states, scuttled the deal.
Republicans have long said they do not see an urgent need for the funds and insisted that any money at least be paid for with cuts to the billions in previously provided virus-related aid, such as aid to state governments.
Romney and Schumer finally reached a deal in early April to pay for $10 billion in new funding, less than half of the White House’s $22.5 billion request, which also left out $5 billion for global virus efforts.
Around the same time, though, the Biden administration announced that it would undo the Title 42 border policy, prompting Republicans to demand the politically sensitive vote to keep it in place, leading to the current standoff.
Some Democrats on Tuesday expressed increased openness to allowing a vote on Title 42 to get COVID-19 aid moving, but there is still no resolution.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) noted that even allowing a vote in the Senate on Title 42 might not fully clear the way for the money, given that the border amendment has a good chance of passing. That means it would be added to the bill, and House Democrats then might not want to pass the funding with the border change attached.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday declined to say if the president would accept a funding measure that rolled back lifting Title 42, saying there are “ongoing discussions in Congress at this point.”
But she said one way or another, the COVID-19 funding needs to pass.
“We need more money,” she said. “We don’t have a Plan B here.”