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Hoyer: White House to ask for more pandemic relief funds

Republican support is uncertain amid questions about the pace of approved aid spending

A woman picks up COVID-19 rapid antigen test kits at the Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Neighborhood Library in Washington in December.
A woman picks up COVID-19 rapid antigen test kits at the Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Neighborhood Library in Washington in December. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Biden administration is preparing to ask Congress for “substantial” funding to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic domestically and abroad, according to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer.

The Maryland Democrat told reporters Tuesday during a pen-and-pad briefing that he expects the White House will ask lawmakers to appropriate funding for testing, vaccines and “to make sure schools have resources to keep themselves safe.”

Hoyer did not say whether congressional leaders would seek to tie the forthcoming supplemental spending request to the Feb. 18 deadline for funding the government. But he added that pandemic aid “has an immediacy and an urgency that should compel us to move quickly.”

The Office of Management and Budget did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether a proposal is forthcoming. House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro said talks are in the preliminary stages.

“There’s been discussion about what we need with regard to [COVID-19], both domestically and internationally,” the Connecticut Democrat said Tuesday. “So we will see how that manifests itself. But we’ll take a look at that and see how that fits in with an omnibus” fiscal 2022 spending bill.

There’s no indication yet from Republicans about whether the party would broadly back more emergency funding to address the ongoing pandemic, which could pose problems in the evenly divided Senate.

No Republicans voted for a nearly $1.9 trillion COVID-19 emergency relief law enacted last year, arguing that not enough of the money went to addressing the direct health care impact of the virus.

And GOP lawmakers point to unspent funds remaining in agency coffers from prior rounds of pandemic relief. In a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona dated Monday, Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina asked for a breakdown of what’s still available, citing data showing that, as of Dec. 30, nearly 72 percent of $266 billion in pandemic-related education appropriations hasn’t yet been spent.

“Schools have the funding necessary to address the impacts of COVID-19 and keep students in school,” the senators wrote. Blunt is the top Republican on the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, while Burr is the ranking GOP senator on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Their letter follows a separate one last week asking Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra for an accounting of how prior COVID-19 testing funds totaling nearly $83 billion appropriated by Congress are being used.

Any spending measure would need the support of at least 10 GOP senators to become law, which could lead to bipartisan negotiations if Republican leaders do agree additional funding is needed to address the pandemic.

Less than six weeks

Whether those talks would get rolled into government funding negotiations is undecided.

The current temporary funding law expires in less than six weeks, but Democrats and Republicans have yet to agree on how much to spend for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, let alone how to divvy that money up between defense and nondefense accounts.

DeLauro began a Tuesday morning hearing on Capitol Hill security in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection to urge Republicans to begin serious negotiations with Democrats.

She said that GOP “intransigence is keeping the Capitol Police stuck at last year’s funding levels” and denying “the resources they need to keep the Capitol and all who work and visit here safe.”

Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, the top Republican on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, said she wanted to avoid using another stopgap funding bill to keep the lights on at federal departments, but she put the blame for the monthslong stalemate on Democrats.

“I don’t think [continuing resolutions] are a good idea, but if [Democrats] want that bipartisan support, there needs to be some bipartisan effort put into the bills,” Herrera Beutler said.

If Republicans and Democrats agree to begin talks on another COVID-19 emergency spending bill, it could include additional aid to assist restaurants amid the ongoing omicron surge. But there’s been no agreement as yet, and it wasn’t clear Tuesday if the Biden administration would request more restaurant aid.

The Small Business Administration burned through an initial $28.6 billion in grant funds in last year’s relief law for restaurants, bars, food trucks and others affected by pandemic-related shutdowns. The Independent Restaurant Coalition says 177,000 small businesses were denied funds when the money ran out, and other industries in similar circumstances, such as gyms and live entertainment venues, are also seeking relief.

DeLauro said Tuesday morning she was “open to restaurant relief” but would “wait to see where the best vehicle is for it.”

Laura Weiss contributed to this report.

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