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Pandemic Politics: GOP urges Dems to use unspent money from American Rescue Plan for COVID-19 funding

The masks come off. The office opens up. The COVID coffers dwindle.

But the latter may be a problem.

Yes, Congress spent nearly $5 trillion on COVID since the beginning of the pandemic. But Congress ripped $15 billion in coronavirus health funds out of a big, omnibus spending bill to fund the government earlier this month. 

Meantime, cases surge in the United Kingdom and China. There’s been an extraordinary bounce in cases among lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol. Twenty members of Congress have tested positive this month alone. There’s worry about another wave of cases in the United States as the omicron BA.2 variant spreads. Top White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci doubts there will be a serious surge. But it’s all unclear.

The Biden administration is imploring lawmakers to approve the new COVID money. The White House says the government lacks the money to fund distribution of a potential fourth booster if it’s mandated. No new money means no free tests. No free therapeutics. No free vaccines.

WHITE HOUSE SAYS COVID-19 MONEY ON ‘EMPTY’ AS IT TIES APPROVAL TO UKRAINE AID

People will have to pony up the cash out of their own pocketbook to pay for vaccines and medicine. And what happens if you’re supposed to send your kid to a summer camp that requires tests? Or attend a friend’s birthday party at a public venue that requires a test? Or attend a sporting event or concert that requires a test?

Americans will have to pay on their own – right as inflation climbs and gas prices remain high. So paying for a test becomes a de facto tax.

“Whether it’s a wedding or a business conference or whatever people enjoy doing, a test on the front end can help someone potentially prevent a spread,” said Dr. Shawn Naqvi, of Personic Health Care in Virginia. “I can’t emphasize enough the need for more federal funding so we can offer this on a free basis to everyone who is in need.”

Naqvi’s not the only one calling on Congress to act. 

After Congress stripped the funding, Fauci told a Washington Post forum it was “really extraordinary, particularly given what we’ve been through.”

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients publicly fretted about what the lack of funding meant if the pandemic took a turn for the worse and vaccines are needed.

“Because it takes months to ramp back up to rebuild capacity, failure to invest now will leave us with insufficient testing, capacity and supply,” said Zients. “We urgently need additional funding from Congress to continue our fight against COVID.”

Congressional leaders from both parties were stunned when a coalition of lawmakers objected to its inclusion of the coronavirus money in the omnibus spending package. The lawmakers balked at the fact that Congress would pay for the COVID money by slashing previously approved coronavirus cash, tagged for their states and districts.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill on March 19, 2021.

“It is heartbreaking,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when forced to remove the COVID money from the bill in order to avoid a government shutdown.

Pelosi then in a private meeting verbally upbraided Democrats who forced leaders to yank the COVID health aid.

“What is your message to those colleagues who nitpick over that?” asked Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News.

“I’ve communicated my message to them,” replied a steely Pelosi, drawing a laugh from the Capitol Hill press corps.

The speaker added that Congress must offset whatever COVID money was needed.

But passing a bill with more COVID aid is a tough sell. There’s pandemic fatigue. Some Democrats are leery of the optics of the pandemic continuing as the midterm elections creep closer. Parliamentarily, it was easiest to load up the COVID money onto the omnibus spending bill. The COVID money would ride along everything else in that massive, $1.5 trillion bill to fund the entire government. But now, Congress must likely tackle it as a standalone. Such a prospect may not be a problem in the House. But the Senate is another issue. Any bill there is subject to a filibuster. And, it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., indicates the House will tackle a prospective COVID bill in the next few weeks. But Hoyer intimated the legislation must wade its way through the Senate first.

HOYER TELLS DEMOCRATS TO PREPARE FOR NEW COVID RELIEF BILL

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., speaks during the House Democrats' press conference on July 22, 2020.

Then there’s another problem: politics.

Republicans have long railed against Democrats approving their own, $1.9 trillion bill a year ago on a partisan basis. The GOP contends the measure included a lot of extraneous provisions that amounted to a left-wing wish list which had little to do with COVID. Republicans argue that bill is partly to blame for fueling inflation, flushing the economy with too much cash. 

So, heading into the midterms, Republicans have a plan to extract a pound of flesh from Democrats to get COVID help this time. And, they want to lord last March’s partisan coronavirus bill over the heads of Democrats. 

“Be totally transparent with where that $1.9 trillion went,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “Let’s see what’s left and see if we couldn’t find some money to pay for whatever the administration would like to do next.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., quickly pointed to what he characterized as “unspent money” as the source to plus-up COVID accounts to deal with health issues.

“The money is there and should be reprogrammed and that’s the way forward,” said McConnell.

“Reprogramming” money to cover current pandemic health needs likely needs congressional approval. And Republicans are focused on trying to make Democrats take it on the chin – extracting money from Democratic priorities passed in the $1.9 trillion bill – just to address COVID preparedness now. 

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the White House had not yet “laid out a specific plan” for the new COVID needs. 

“I think the administration has to be more forthcoming with the information and justifications and offsets,” said Collins. “One area where I do think there is going to be a need is in testing.”

Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer during an event at the Capitol on Jan. 17, 2018.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wasn’t ready to agree to McConnell’s proposal of taking money from other COVID pots. Schumer just said he was working with Republicans to find a way to prevent the COVID fiscal cliff.

“This is really crucial. Anyone who tries to block this, God forbid we have a second variant and we don’t have enough of the therapeutics, enough of the testing, enough of the vaccines. (They’re) going to regret it,” said Schumer. “We hope to get it done.”

The Senate devolved into wild, verbal brawling two years ago this month in an effort to pass the staggering $2.2 trillion “CARES” Act to address coronavirus at the outset of the pandemic. The measure proved to be the most sweeping piece of legislation in American history.

Congress finally approved the package after days of consternation.

Two years later, the pandemic isn’t over. Yet the White House and even Republican lawmakers are still fighting over money. 

The pandemic hasn’t abated. And neither have the politics.

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