What to Know in Washington: Biden Eyes $30 Billion Covid Request

  • White House officials seeking $30 billion to fight Covid-19
  • Time running short for panel to grease Congress’ wheels

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Biden administration officials told lawmakers yesterday that they plan to seek $30 billion in new spending to combat the Covid-19 pandemic in conjunction with a $1.5 trillion government funding package lawmakers want to complete by March 11. Department of Health and Human Services officials made the informal pitch to lawmakers, with a formal White House request expected at a later date.

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the top Republican on the health appropriations subcommittee, said he talked to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra about the request yesterday. “I think they are going to be proposing a $30 billion supplemental,” Blunt said, indicating he could support it. “In the categories they are asking for money, the other money has all been spent or committed to other purposes.”

Health and Human Services is seeking $18 billion for medical countermeasures like antivirals and vaccines, according to people familiar with the conversations. The department also wants $5 billion for testing, $3 billion to treat the uninsured and $4 billion to prepare for future variants. Another $500 million could be targeted for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention operations. Not included so far are funds for global vaccine distribution. Progressive Democratic lawmakers have sought $17 billion for that.

“While we continue to have sufficient funds to respond to the current omicron surge in the coming weeks, our goal has always been to ensure that we are well-prepared to stay ahead of the virus,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday. “So we’ve been in these ongoing conversations about what those needs might look like and this was a part of that effort.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told reporters yesterday he wasn’t interested in dealing with the request as part of the omnibus spending package and would rather move it as a separate bill.

While Blunt may support the package, other Republicans could balk at the new Covid request, causing further delays in the larger annual funding bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor recently that any funds for Covid efforts should come from re-purposing previously appropriated relief from earlier Covid spending packages. Top Appropriations Republican Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has also endorsed looking to re-purpose funds. Read more from Erik Wasson and Josh Wingrove.

Photo by Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images
Sens. Leahy and Blunt at the Capitol on Jan. 5

Also Happening on the Hill

CONGRESS SCHEDULE:

  • Senate meets at 10 a.m. to consider nominees for two defense posts.
  • The House Budget panel holds hearing on ending debt limit. Click here for a complete list of today’s hearings and markups.

Lawmakers on a temporary panel to improve Congress’ functionality are rushing to ensure the recommendations they’ve offered over the past three years are implemented before time is up. Members of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress are crafting a resolution that would implement some 30 recommendations the panel has already approved. Likely to be introduced in the next few weeks, the resolution includes proposals to expand tuition assistance and professional development opportunities for staffers, hold bipartisan retreats for members, and ensure congressional websites and buildings can be easily accessed by those with disabilities.

Speaking alongside the committee’s GOP vice chair at an event with Bloomberg Government, Chair Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) said the committee, which may not return in the next Congress, is “sprinting toward the finish line.” Read more from Emily Wilkins.

Congressional Democrats grappling with surging inflation nine months before the midterm elections are lining up legislation to address rising gas, medical and food costs—or at least show voters they’re trying. Democrats, particularly those in hotly competitive races, just introduced legislation that would suspend the federal 18-cents-per-gallon gas tax until next year and are drafting a bill that would reduce insulin prices. Other options include pulling out popular pieces of Biden’s stalled economic agenda addressing prescription drug prices and child care costs. The goal, several Democrats said, is to address inflation as soon as possible after the chamber’s recess next week. Read more from Laura Litvan.

Key Democrats introduced a bill to repeal the debt limit, after a 2021 debt ceiling standoff led Democrats to consider alternatives such as minting a $1 trillion coin to avert a default on federal payments. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), and Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) introduced a bill yesterday that would repeal the debt limit and give the secretary of the Treasury Department authority to issue new debt “as long as the president notifies Congress that new debt is needed,” the three said in a joint press release.

The bill would require a notification when the federal debt is within $100 billion of a trillion-dollar increment, according to the release. Democrats have scheduled a related House Budget Committee hearing on the topic today. Read more from Jack Fitzpatrick.

The standoff in the Senate Banking Committee over Federal Reserve nominee Sarah Bloom Raskin has no quick resolution in sight, leaving all of Biden’s Fed picks in limbo, potentially into next month. Ranking member Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) vowed yesterday to keep blocking a committee vote on Raskin unless he gets more information about why the Kansas City Fed granted a highly-sought-after master account to a Colorado-based fintech company where Raskin served as a director. “We’re not willing to vote for Ms. Raskin until we get some answers to our questions,” he said on the Senate floor. Steven T. Dennis has more.

The landmark bill to guarantee that workers alleging sexual harassment or sexual assault can pursue lawsuits in court contains an ambiguity about its scope that will have to be resolved through litigation, legal scholars said. Legislation awaiting Biden’s signature bars the enforcement of arbitration agreements “with respect to a case” that relates to disputes over alleged sexual harassment or assault. That leaves unclear how courts will handle cases that also include other allegations, like race discrimination or wage-and-hour claims, scholars said. Read more from Robert Iafolla and Paige Smith.

Politics & Influence

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, is taking up the cause of giant technology companies facing fresh antitrust threats from the Biden administration and Congress. The organization, whose members include industry stalwarts such as AT&T and Pfizer, isn’t known as a voice for Silicon Valley. But in recent months it’s stepped into the fight against tougher antitrust enforcement, repeatedly attacking the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and its chair, Lina Khan, a fierce critic of the internet giants. Read more from David McLaughlin.

Six people allegedly involved in promoting falsified elector slates backing former President Donald Trump were subpoenaed yesterday to testify to the House committee investigating last year’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Those subpoenaed include former Trump campaign aides Michael Roman and Gary Michael Brown. The others are: Kelli Ward, chair of the Arizona Republican Party; Mark Finchem, an Arizona state House member; Douglas Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator; and former Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox. The committee has been focusing on the false claims that Trump and his allies pushed about the election outcome and how that played roles in stoking the violence on Jan. 6, 2021. Read more from Billy House.

A panel of Minnesota judges adopted a congressional map that mostly maintains the present partisan and geographic composition of the state’s eight districts, which are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. The five judges, who intervened after the state legislature and governor failed to agree on new lines for the next decade of House elections, said in an order yesterday that they took a “restrained approach” that equalized district populations by applying politically neutral redistricting principles such as preserving communities of interest. Read more from Greg Giroux.

Around the Administration

BIDEN’S SCHEDULE:

  • The president has no public events scheduled today.
  • The White House Covid-19 response team will hold a press briefing at 11 a.m.
  • White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold a briefing at 1 p.m.

Biden said it remains possible that Russia will invade Ukraine because its troops remain in a “threatening position,” and said that the U.S. has not verified Moscow’s claims that it has withdrawn some forces. The American president agreed with a Kremlin declaration Monday that diplomacy is still possible but vowed he would not “sacrifice basic principles” that countries—including Ukraine—should have the right to keep their own borders. “We should give the diplomacy every chance to succeed, and I believe there are real ways to address our respective security concerns,” Biden said at the White House yesterday. “To the citizens of Russia: You are not our enemy. And I do not believe you want a bloody, destructive war against Ukraine.” Read more from Jordan Fabian and Josh Wingrove.

The Biden administration said that new trade tools are needed to confront China, which for two decades has failed to keep promises to pursue market-oriented policies that it made to join the World Trade Organization. China’s state-led model has increased with time and harmed American companies and workers, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said in a 72-page annual report on the nation’s compliance with the WTO’s rules released today. Beijing has used numerous unfair, non-market and distortive trade tactics in pursuit of its industrial-policy objectives, USTR said. Read more from Eric Martin.

The White House is evaluating ways of making environmental permitting decisions within a reasonable time as part of the next round of changes to its regulations, said Jomar Maldonado, an administration official. That glimpse into the Council on Environmental Quality’s thinking suggests an awareness of a central tension in its effort to change the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. The White House wants to restore strong environmental protections that were trimmed under Trump, but it also wants to ensure projects such as solar arrays and wind farms get permitted quickly enough to help decarbonize the economy. Read more from Stephen Lee.

The U.S. says some countries haven’t been able to accept all vaccine donations from the U.S., as they increasingly grapple with logistical barriers and vaccine hesitancy. “There have been moments, yes, where countries are not able to receive the doses that we’re able to provide,” Psaki said at a briefing yesterday. She didn’t identify the countries. The U.S. has donated and shipped 437 million doses abroad so far, more than any other nation, and pledged a total of at least 1.2 billion. Biden held a virtual event in September to muster a more coordinated global response, though advocates say that’s still lacking. Josh Wingrove has more.

Efforts to improve federal agencies’ widely criticized system to manage the wireless spectrum won plaudits from industry and advocacy groups yesterday. Lawmakers have called on federal agencies to reform how they manage spectrum, a finite resource that has led to clashes, including between the Federal Aviation Administration and mobile carriers seeking to roll out 5G networks using a portion of spectrum called the C-Band. Jessica Rosenworcel, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, and Alan Davidson, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, yesterday said they would launch a spectrum coordination initiative, involving monthly high-level meetings and updating a memorandum of understanding dating back nearly 20 years. Read more from Maria Curi.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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