Senate closes in on $10B Covid aid deal despite Dem frustrations

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“We’re close. A few more things have got to be ironed out,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in an interview. “We’re trying to get global stuff in there, We’re working hard on it. That’s one of the things we’re trying to get done.”

The sum — the result of days of negotiations between senior senators of both parties — would leave out a major ask from the White House. It does not include $5 billion in global vaccine efforts, drawing sharp complaints from many Democrats about the nation’s preparedness to fight the pandemic abroad. Lawmakers are now talking about a figure closer to $1 billion in vaccine aid.

“In general, the two parties see where we are on Covid and spending and offsets, very differently,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “I appreciate that Sen. Romney came out and said he wants some way to increase the international [funding]. Because to have zero international would be a huge mistake in the middle of a global humanitarian crisis.”

Trying to break a Senate filibuster will require at least 10 Republicans’ support, a vote that Schumer could call up next week — early hope for a test vote on Thursday dimmed by midday. Meanwhile, next week’s floor schedule will be dominated by confirming Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, heightening the potential urgency of a vote.

Key senators of both parties began dealmaking in earnest this week on a revised aid package, after an earlier version collapsed in the House over objections from several Democrats over how to pay for the aid. Schumer has negotiated closely with GOP Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Lindsay Graham (S.C.). Democratic Sens. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Coons are also part of the negotiations.

“They’re pretty close to working out a deal on $10 [billion],” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said of the closed-door efforts. “$10 billion is a lot of money.”

Senators clarified there are still some bumps to navigate before a floor vote. Romney said they’re still waiting on a score from the Congressional Budget Office, and Murray said the total amount is still in flux and that it’s too early to say their work is done.

The full price tag would be covered by reneging other funding, including more than $2 billion in unused aid for venues like zoos and theaters that were closed because of Covid, said Sen. Blunt.

Most of the bill’s funds would be rerouted from money included in the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package President Joe Biden signed into law a year ago. Romney said “we’ve reached an agreement in principle on all the spending and all of the offsets.”

The full package could clear the chamber in the coming days and head to the House, where many Democrats aren’t satisfied with the plan to significantly downsize the size of the package. The Senate negotiations are necessary after House Democrats torpedoed an earlier version of the package, as individual members fought efforts to fund the effort with leftover Covid money allocated to their states.

“I think what the Republicans are doing is either they don’t care or they don’t know. But it is wrong,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday, though she did not say her caucus would refuse to consider a scaled-back version.

Multiple House Democrats are already threatening to withhold their support for a pandemic bill that does not include the $5 billion in global vaccination funds. Even if they cannot negotiate a bigger price tag, several lawmakers said they will demand that at least some of the funding goes toward international health efforts.

“I just cannot support another round of Covid funding that just completely eviscerates our ability to be, as Joe Biden put it, the arsenal of vaccines for the world,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said. “We have to get it right.”

“I continue to be mystified by the willingness of some at the White House to deprioritize what every expert would agree is the most important and cost-effective thing we can do to protect ourselves,” Malinowski said of the administration’s decision to sign off on the deal without global funding.

GOP senators floated the $10 billion aid package on Wednesday — scaling back a previously negotiated $15.6 billion deal that collapsed in the House earlier this month. It’s also far less than the White House’s initial request of nearly $22.5 billion, which included asks for tests, therapeutics and vaccines — including shots for children under 5 years old, which could be approved in the coming months. The GOP’s latest proposal was first reported by The Hill.

Under the emerging deal, some funding would come from education and agriculture accounts, plus a pot of money that was supposed to be spent on aviation manufacturing. No money would be taken from general pandemic assistance to state and local governments.

Half of the roughly $10 billion total would be spent on therapeutic medicines that treat Covid. The Biden administration could use the other half on a broad range of pandemic health work, including researching “long Covid” and potentially tweaking the vaccine to protect against new variants of the virus, Blunt said.

After Congress’ initial Covid funding deal fell apart, the White House has turned up the pressure on lawmakers to deliver quickly. Officials have repeatedly warned that they don’t have the funds to restock vaccines with another potential Omicron wave on the horizon, among other pressing needs.

The funding struggle is expected to drag on, even after final passage, since $10 billion is only enough to run federal pandemic efforts for a few months. Blunt said he expects the White House will “soon” need to ask Congress for another influx of money to fund federal work on Covid treatments, vaccines and testing into the summer.

Pelosi, among other Democrats, also voiced concern about the Senate’s plan to trim the size of the package during a closed-door meeting of lawmakers earlier Thursday, according to multiple people in the room.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) on Thursday wouldn’t say whether the House would make its own changes to the deal, likening it to an unfinished culinary creation: “It’s not jello yet. It’s not chicken salad yet. We’ll wait to see.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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