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Senate Democrats want $9 billion to fight COVID-19 overseas

Money would go to help multinational efforts to manufacture and distribute a vaccine for coronavirus

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and other Democrats want some coronavirus relief money to go overseas.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and other Democrats want some coronavirus relief money to go overseas. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Democrats are pushing a bill to authorize $9 billion in new emergency and regular appropriations funds to support international efforts to combat the coronavirus.

The legislation, unveiled on Friday, is sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Menendez of New Jersey and is co-sponsored by eight of his Democratic colleagues on the committee. A major focus of the policy bill is to force the Trump administration to cooperate with multilateral organizations in searching for and sharing an eventual vaccine.

Thus far, the Trump administration has been mostly at odds with the efforts of international institutions to coordinate global efforts to respond to the public health and economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected nearly 3.9 million people worldwide and killed 270,000 according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus dashboard.

For example, in April, President Donald Trump announced he was pausing funding to the World Health Organization over criticisms of its initial handing of the coronavirus and China’s role in the U.N. agency. The United States thus far is not participating in initiatives by the European Union and WHO to raise funds for a vaccine development drive that would be cooperatively manufactured and shared.

[Trump’s World Health Organization funding cutoff: It’s complicated]

And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin blocked a push last month by the International Monetary Fund to dramatically increase by hundreds of billions of dollars the amount of funding the multilateral financial institution is able to lend to its 189 member countries. The United States is the largest shareholder in the IMF and the biggest funder of WHO.

The Menendez legislation would require the Trump administration to take a more robust leadership response to the coronavirus at the U.N. Security Council, order the immediate resumption of U.S. funding to WHO and authorize roughly $2.8 billion in new and arrears payments to the United Nations and its agencies including WHO.

The bill would also authorize $200 million in funding to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations — a public-private vaccine research initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that is playing a leading role in coordinating the global search for a vaccine that would be equitably shared around the world. The United States is not a funder of CEPI, which was established in 2017.

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“For nearly a century, the U.S. has worked with our partners and allies to address global threats, and provide for the common good,” Menendez said in a statement. “COVID-19 is no different. In order to stop the spread in the United States, we need to stop the spread everywhere. There is a moral imperative to U.S. leadership in the global arena right now, and this legislation is a recognition that we need to lead the international community to bring this pandemic to an end.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rebuts criticism that the Trump administration hasn’t done enough internationally to combat the coronavirus, arguing the United States has been more generous than any other country in its foreign assistance.

On Wednesday, the State Department announced it was allocating an additional $128 million in global health and humanitarian aid to deal with the coronavirus, bringing to more than $900 million the amount Foggy Bottom has provided this year to more than 120 countries to help with their public health, humanitarian and economic responses to the pandemic.

Of the new monies, $100 million will go toward preventing, detecting and curtailing the spread of the virus and $28 million will be used for humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants, who are particularly vulnerable to bad health outcomes from the disease.

Prospects for passage

The $9 billion in requested foreign assistance is just a tiny fraction of the nearly $3 trillion that Congress has already appropriated this year for domestic coronavirus relief. Congress provided $1.25 billion in a previous emergency appropriations bill for State and the U.S. Agency for International Development to use on coronavirus-related foreign aid.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the lead Democrat on the Senate Appropriations State-Foreign Operations subcommittee, told CQ Roll Call on Thursday he was in “preliminary” discussions with Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., the Appropriations chairman, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the cardinal of the foreign aid subcommittee, about funding for coronavirus-related international assistance. He did not disclose any specific funding numbers under discussion.

According to an April poll by Morning Consult of nearly 2,000 registered voters, 72 percent of those surveyed supported dedicating between $10 and $15 billion in the next coronavirus relief spending bill to international assistance.

The Menendez bill authorizes $1 billion for an immediate contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which is active in over 100 countries, to be used for the fund’s coronavirus response. The bill approves $15 million in fiscal 2021 funds to the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty among other U.S. government-funded news organizations, to expand their efforts to counter disinformation from other countries about the virus.

And the legislation would permit the State Department to cover the costs of the emergency evacuation of U.S. nationals during the pandemic and authorize roughly $15.7 million in fiscal 2021 funding to that effect.

The measure would further order a temporary halt in deportations to countries with weak public health systems until the administration is able to implement a testing regimen that ensures that all would-be deportees have tested negative for COVID-19.

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