As America approaches 1 million confirmed Covid-19 deaths, and a new subvariant becomes the dominant strain in the US, Congress remains apathetic to the public health catastrophe. Our elected officials have let the government run out of billions of dollars in pandemic relief funding, with the uninsured already losing access to free coronavirus tests and treatment, and next week, losing access to free vaccines. Congress isn’t just stalling, either—they’re actively shrinking the funding package.
Senators negotiating Covid funding approached a compromise last week that would cut the White House’s request in half. The Biden administration initially asked Congress for $22.5 billion to fund Covid response, including vaccines, treatments, and testing for the uninsured. On March 1, during his State of the Union address, Biden said he expected Congress to “pass it quickly.” A few weeks later, congressional Democrats slashed the amount to $15.6 billion, and ended up stripping the Covid funds from a must-pass $1.5 trillion spending bill after running into opposition from rank-and-file members.
Party leaders had caved to Republican demands that Congress pay for the Covid funds by using states’ leftover funds from previous pandemic relief packages, which dozens of members, as well as some governors, found unacceptable. “It is heartbreaking to remove the Covid funding, and we must continue to fight for urgently needed Covid assistance, but unfortunately that will not be included in this bill,” Pelosi wrote to Democrats.
At the same time that Covid cash was being removed from the budget bill, lawmakers had no difficulty finding billions of dollars for military assistance to Ukraine. Roughly half of the $13.6 billion emergency aid Congress passed went to weapons, and to support the deployment of additional troops and materials to the region. In that case, there were no debates over pay-fors, no back-and-forths on the top-line number, and no compromises made on the military assistance. This week, Biden ramped up pressure on Congress to pass Covid funding, using a speech on the state of the pandemic to reiterate his calls, saying that “we are already seeing the consequences of Congress’ inaction” and that we “leave ourselves vulnerable” if another wave hits.
“Congress, please act. You have to act immediately,” Biden said. “The consequences of inaction are severe. They’ll only grow with time, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
The Health Resources and Services Administration Covid-19 program for the uninsured just stopped accepting reimbursement claims from clinics and hospitals “due to lack of sufficient funds.” And the Biden administration says it doesn’t have enough money to sustain its testing capacity beyond June. Americans will also be expected to eventually receive a second booster shot. If new variants or surges arise, the poor will continue to bear the brunt of the crisis.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer told reporters this week that he’s “trying to come to an agreement” with Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who’s been negotiating for Republicans, on pandemic relief and how to pay for it. Democrats will need 10 Republicans to break a Senate filibuster and get funding through the chamber. The package is being whittled down further, going from $15 billion to $10 billion. Global coronavirus funding, meant to boost vaccination efforts abroad, was the first thing to go. But negotiations are still in flux. Senate Democrats are trying to salvage $1 billion for global aid, and some in the House are even threatening to withhold their support if global vaccination funds don’t make it into the package.
Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said that he hopes the chamber votes on a bill next week. “I don’t want to go home for a week break at the end of next week, without having first Covid-19 dollars that are needed to save lives,” Hoyer said. Not everyone in Congress shares the sense of urgency, especially now that many states have dropped their pandemic mandates. In Senate minority whip John Thune’s view, Democrats are “creating a crisis and urgency around it, and I don’t think our guys see it that way.”