Here’s a scary thought: America’s ability to face the pandemic’s next phase may depend on a handful of senators.
The talks between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) entered their most urgent stage yet on Wednesday, as the two spearhead an effort to allocate $15.6 billion to fight the pandemic. The Democratic leader and Republican centrist convened a larger group on Wednesday afternoon to see if there is a real chance at a bipartisan bill before the April 9 congressional recess; the meeting broke without a deal but a vow to keep talking.
Lawmakers already disagreed on how, exactly, to claw back cash from unused pots of money that Congress dispensed earlier in the pandemic, which they want to use to bankroll the new funding. But there’s also a more philosophical divide that is proving more complicated: The two parties don’t agree on how urgent it is to come up with more money during the current coronavirus lull. With those underlying problems, it’s a big question mark if Schumer and Romney can get the needed 10 Republican senators to sign on.
Senate Democrats insist that every day without action counts, as the country needs to gear up with more therapeutics, testing and vaccines. Schumer said Wednesday that the consequences of failure are “really serious, scary almost.” In remarks on Wednesday afternoon, President Joe Biden said the nation is “running a risk” if Congress doesn’t act quickly, warning testing capacity will be exhausted by the end of June and that vaccine and therapeutic supplies are also dwindling as the year drags on.
“We need to have enough vaccines available for the next surge, whatever it is. No one knows. And you can’t just order it the day before,” said Senate HELP Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “If we have another surge and there isn’t therapeutics, we’re going to have a real health care calamity.”
Republicans, however, doubt the money is as vital as the White House asserts. They’re demanding an accounting of all of the hundreds of billions of dollars in Covid aid distributed over the past 12 months before they allocate more cash. They say that could reveal not only where there’s ample money to fund the next phase of the pandemic fight, but also frivolous spending.
“If we need it for the American people, we’ll do it. We always have,” said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I’m not convinced. But I don’t know for sure. I’m not a scientist. But some of that money’s been used for various and sundry things, you know?”
It’s not a picayune dispute: At least 10 GOP senators will be needed to send anything through the Senate and back to the House, where a previous pandemic aid deal fell apart over significant grousing from House Democrats about their states losing money. What’s more, Congress’ last major action on Covid was party-line, with Democrats unilaterally passing a bill in March 2021 that spent $1.9 trillion to fight the pandemic.
The expanded negotiating group includes Schumer, Romney, Murray, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), according to aides. Romney called the talks a “work in progress” and said that the negotiations aren’t going to stop the next wave but may help save lives of those vulnerable to Covid.
Republicans came to different conclusions after Wednesday’s meeting. Burr was bullish that there would be a deal by next week but declined to talk about the particulars. Romney was less confident but said he hoped a deal could be reached. The bulk of the money would go to therapeutics.
“We’re going to work through all the differences and see if we can reach a meeting of the minds, and we may or may not,” Romney said. “I’m an old deal guy, I’m very comfortable with deals that don’t make it, which is if you can’t get there, you don’t get there.”
Romney was a key negotiator on the December 2020 coronavirus aid package, but since that deal, Democrats have mostly forged ahead alone. With that in mind, Republicans are insisting that the funding come from existing buckets of cash and not include new spending, forcing tough decisions about where to find billions of dollars.
“Schumer was upset with the proposed [way to pay for it]. He was very taken aback by that,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). Democrats are “creating a crisis and urgency around it, and I don’t think our guys see it that way.”
Schumer is signaling he wants to move fast, and he even took procedural steps Tuesday that would allow the Senate to move quickly on a Covid aid package, should the two parties reach a deal this week.
Senators are pushing for an agreement before the two-week Easter recess, scheduled to begin the week of April 11. And much of the chamber’s floor time next week will be devoted to confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. There’s also ongoing negotiations over barring regular trade relations with Russia.
With all that on their plates, Democrats say the next week will be absolutely vital for public health, arguing that letting the Covid money dispute linger until late April could have dire consequences. But some are less than optimistic it can be done, with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin cautioning: “When you have the full Senate depending on Rand Paul’s mood swings I don’t want to make any predictions.”
“It’s unfortunate if Republican colleagues don’t feel that sense of urgency,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “Other countries are coming in and buying those therapeutics. And right now there’s only a limited supply. So we want America at the front of the line, not the back of the line.”
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