What to Know in Washington: Spending Talks Face Covid Fund Pleas

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The Biden administration is warning lawmakers that the U.S. doesn’t have enough money on hand to respond to future Covid-19 variants, stockpile vaccines or develop new technologies.

Funds for pandemic response—including testing, vaccine distribution and other medical supplies—have been either spent or set aside already for purchases, according to a Department of Health and Human Services document obtained by Bloomberg News. All funds provided so far have been spent or earmarked for use.

Early in Joe Biden’s presidency, Congress passed a $1.9 trillion federal aid package known as the American Rescue Plan that replenished funds needed to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. But now nearly all the health-specific resources from the rescue plan, as well as other bills, have been spent or allocated, including resources that are financing ongoing omicron response efforts, according to a Biden administration official familiar with the funding.

Another Biden administration official said that if Congress doesn’t quickly provide additional money, the U.S. could once again be caught off-guard if another Covid-19 variant strikes, as it was when the omicron wave hit last last year. Bipartisan consensus is critical to ensuring the U.S. doesn’t run low on vaccines, tests or treatments, that official said. The administration will be unable to prepare for a potential new wave without congressional action, the official said.

The official pointed to the omicron surge as an example of how a new challenge strained resources: The administration moved to ship free tests to Americans at a cost of billions as shortfalls mounted. If Congress doesn’t allocate more funding, the U.S. could see similar shortfalls again, they said. Riley Griffin has more.

As appropriators hammer out an agreement toward a 12-bill appropriations omnibus to fully fund the government past March 11, lawmakers and White House officials have been pushing for a supplemental measure to boost funding to fight the pandemic.

  • But Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick Leahy said he’s opposed to attaching supplemental spending measures to the 12-bill omnibus. Earlier this week, he expressed frustration with lawmakers looking to tack on additional priorities to a carefully crafted funding bill, Jack Fitzpatrick reports. “We’ve worked here weekends, nights,” Leahy (D-Vt.) said. “Now everybody sees us done, and, ‘Oh, by the way, I wanted to’—I said I hope you enjoyed your weekends away.”
  • Also floating a supplemental—for disaster relief—is Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who said states like Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, and California need aid that he wants to tie to the government funding package, Fitzpatrick reports. “There’s no reason, given a budget of this size, for us not to allocate money for disaster relief,” he said, adding: “I have tried to move a number of bills on the floor. Each time, I was told, Kennedy, it’s premature, we’re going to do disaster relief in the appropriations bill. Well, here we are, and I expect it to be included.”

Photographer: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
Leahy at the Capitol yesterday, following a meeting of Senate Democrats and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.

In addition to the calls for supplemental measures, other challenges—a short timeframe and disappointment with spending allocations—are also facing appropriators as they turn to drafting a final omnibus government funding bill, aiming to enact it by March 11. Most appropriators said they’re optimistic on making the deadline to enact the 12-bill package, but some have gripes. Read more from Jack Fitzpatrick.

Yesterday evening, the Senate cleared a three-week funding bill on a 65-27 vote, averting a U.S. government shutdown that loomed after Feb. 18 and giving lawmakers more time to finish the full-year spending plan. The bill, which passed the House last week, goes to Biden for his signature well ahead of the deadline. The bill passed after the Senate defeated three amendments from Republicans. One would have prohibited funds for federal vaccine mandates, another would have blocked funds for schools with a vaccine mandate and the final one would have required future budget resolutions to balance. Erik Wasson has more.

Happening on the Hill

CONGRESS TRACKER:

  • The Senate wrapped up its business for the week last night. Both chambers are out of session until the week of Feb. 28.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last night took procedural steps to set up a vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021 (H.R. 3755) when the Senate returns the week of Feb. 28, Zach C. Cohen reports. The House-passed legislation would codify Roe v. Wade. “Across the country the assault on women’s health care has intensified to levels not seen in decades—so the Senate is going to vote when we return—on February 28th—to take action,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. The measure is likely to be blocked by Republicans. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said he will vote to allow debate on the measure.

  • The House and Senate could begin taking steps to work out differences on their respective bills to tackle U.S. competition with China, Schumer said.
  • Schumer also took steps to try to move House-passed Postal reform legislation next month. The bill ran into procedural hurdles this week.
  • Legislation from Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) that would take aim at insulin costs is also a priority for Democrats, Schumer said last night.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy threw his support behind a Republican challenging Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a rare case of leadership not supporting an incumbent, Emily Wilkins reports. Harriet Hageman, who Cheney will face in an August 16 primary, has already nabbed an endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Cheney, a former member of leadership herself, has distanced herself from McCarthy (R-Calif.) and others in her party by speaking out against inaccurate claims the 2020 election was stolen and criticizing Republicans for their response to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. McCarthy praised Hageman as someone who “championed America’s natural resources and helped the people of Wyoming reject burdensome and onerous government overreach.”

Around the Administration

BIDEN’S SCHEDULE:

  • The president has no public events scheduled for today. Biden will will speak with transatlantic leaders on a phone this afternoon about Russia’s buildup of military troops on the border of Ukraine as well as continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy, Max Zimmerman reports, citing a White House official.
  • Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing at 2:30 p.m.

Russia responded to a U.S. offer for a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Europe with proposed dates for late next week and the U.S. has accepted, “provided there is no further Russian invasion of Ukraine,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement, Max Zimmerman reports. “If they do invade in the coming days, it will make clear they were never serious about diplomacy,” Price said.

  • In Warsaw, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that instead of seeing Russia withdrawing forces, “we see more forces moving into that border region.” Speaking this morning alongside his Polish counterpart Mariusz Blaszczak, Austin said the U.S. sees “no evidence” of forces moving away from the border. He added that Russia will maintain the capability to launch an attack at any time, Greg Sullivan reports.

The Internal Revenue Service is expanding its capacity to process tax returns following criticisms from members of Congress about taxpayers waiting months to get their refunds. The agency is adding a second so-called surge team to process a backlog of unprocessed tax forms filed in the past two years and is outsourcing some basic functions to help the agency finalize refunds more quickly, the National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins told a Senate committee yesterday. The new surge team is in addition to the 1,200 employees that the agency is temporarily re-assigning to tackle the backlog. Read more from Laura Davison and Naomi Jagoda.

The U.S. Army is confronting a shrinking pool of eligible recruits by gearing up to make that pitch to potential warriors in an economy disrupted by the Covid pandemic. “The world has changed quite a bit in the last few years,” Maj. Gen. Alex Fink, the Army’s chief of enterprise marketing, said in an interview. “We see this need for stability and security.” The Army next month will launch a new campaign to show what it can offer. Read more from Roxana Tiron.

The Department of Homeland Security is redefining what it means for an immigrant to be a public charge, rejecting the Trump administration’s efforts to turn away those needing food stamps, housing assistance, or other aid. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of DHS, unveiled the new definition yesterday as part of a notice of proposed rulemaking. The agency will seek comments before finalizing the rule. Read more from Ellen M. Gilmer.

With assistance from Emily Wilkins, Zach C. Cohen, and Jack Fitzpatrick

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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