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Pandemic relief, disaster aid strain omnibus spending talks

Lawmakers questioned whether it can get done before March 11, when stopgap funding expires

Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby says party leaders will have to make a call on whether another stopgap measure is required.
Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby says party leaders will have to make a call on whether another stopgap measure is required. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Omnibus spending negotiations remained fraught Wednesday amid disputes over including emergency COVID-19 relief and disaster aid.

And with other hang-ups over the 12 annual appropriations bills, lawmakers questioned whether it would all get done before March 11, when stopgap funding expires.

While both parties agree on the need to include defense and humanitarian aid to help Ukraine fight off a Russian invasion, they lack consensus on emergency COVID-19 spending that the administration and Democrats say is needed, as well as disaster aid Republicans from impacted states are pushing.

The need to negotiate up to three supplemental spending bills eats into the time appropriators and leadership need to hammer out details on the 12 fiscal 2022 spending bills that would compromise the bulk of the omnibus package.

Congress gave itself a March 11 deadline to pass the omnibus in its latest stopgap funding measure. House leaders want to bring a package to the floor as early as March 8 to give the slower-moving Senate enough time to process it before the stopgap expires, which would require appropriators to start closing out items this week and largely finalize everything this weekend.

Inability to bring negotiations to a close on that timetable could lead to another stopgap for all or some of the bills.

“I don’t know that we’ll get all 12 bills, but I think we’ll at least have probably 9 or 10 of them,” said Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, the top Republican on the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee.

Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said the top party leaders will have to make a call on any stopgap measures, acknowledging, “We’ll need one if we don’t reach an agreement.”

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., was less willing to entertain the possibility. “We’re trying to get to the 11th, okay? I mean that’s where the goal is,” she said.

COVID-19 aid

President Joe Biden in his State of the Union address Tuesday night said he’d soon be sending Congress a formal request for additional COVID-19 emergency funding to prepare for future variants. And on Wednesday, the White House further detailed its new strategy for fighting the virus, which includes asking Congress for more money to expand testing, vaccines and therapeutics.

The White House did not include requested funding amounts as it detailed the strategy. The Department of Health and Human Services previously told lawmakers it would need $30 billion for “near term” spending in those areas, but Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said they’ve since cut the ask in half to around $15 billion, although a formal supplemental request has not yet been sent to the Hill.

“The number’s about half the size they thought they needed just a few days ago,” Blunt said. “And I think that’s not because of need. I think it’s the number they think they can most likely get.”

Blunt said he believes the revised number includes domestic funding needs as well as funding for international vaccine distribution. The U.S. Agency for International Development asked for $5 billion for that on top of the initial $30 billion that HHS requested.

“International COVID funding just makes sense,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been among a vocal group of progressive Democrats pushing for more global assistance. “There is no wall high enough to keep a virus out. We need to put the money into fighting COVID variants overseas before they hit us here.”

Blunt has been more amenable to approving more COVID-19 aid than most of his GOP colleagues, three dozen of whom signed a Wednesday letter, led by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, to Biden demanding “a full accounting of how the government has already spent the first $6 trillion” before they will consider approving additional funds.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Shelby both signed the letter, signaling that’s the official GOP position.

“We ought to spend that first before we borrow any more,” Shelby said. “The smaller number is always more feasible than the larger number. But the question is, do we need to do it at all?”

Blunt acknowledged his colleagues’ position may prevail and that it’s increasingly unlikely any COVID-19 aid would be attached to the omnibus, in large part because the administration has been slow to provide lawmakers with information.

“I personally would be glad to include it, but I’d also be glad to come back and look at it separately,” he said. “The administration hasn’t been really quick in asking for it.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer asked if the pandemic funds should be attached to the omnibus, said, “We need COVID aid badly.”

Disaster aid

Adding to Republicans’ hesitancy to approve more COVID-19 funds is that Democrats seem unwilling to consider attaching disaster aid to the omnibus.

“Democrats say if we need more disaster aid, they want more COVID money. It’s like comparing apples and eagles,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said.

The Louisiana delegation is pushing for nearly $2 billion in additional relief from Hurricane Ida last fall, as well as Laura and Delta, which hit a year earlier. But the administration has not requested a disaster supplemental for those hurricanes or for the tornado that hit western Kentucky last year.

“The White House has got to request it; it will help me to get Democratic votes. I can sell it on my side,” Kennedy said.

Louisiana’s senior senator, Bill Cassidy, said appropriators are “reluctant” to include disaster aid and that while he will continue the push, “it’s going to be very difficult.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said the Louisiana Republicans haven’t come to him with their request. “They haven’t said a word to me about it so I don’t know what to say,” he said.

Leahy said he has no problem attaching COVID-19 and Ukraine aid to the omnibus, however.

Shelby said disaster aid has been discussed but leadership would ultimately decide. Appropriators, he said, are “focusing on our basics plus the Ukraine situation.”

Ukraine aid

Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to provide aid to Ukraine, but they’ve not yet decided whether to stick to the $6.4 billion the White House requested or go higher. Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Chris Coons, D-Del., and others want to provide as much as $10 billion.

“We haven’t worked all that out yet,” Shelby said.

Blunt said lawmakers seeking a higher number need to be careful not to push too far or risk not getting any Ukraine aid included in the omnibus.

“People keep trying to negotiate independently, things like $6.4 [billion] or $7.4 [billion]; $6.4 [billion] now is better than $7.4 [billion] three weeks from now,” he said.

An issue that popped up the previous day was resolved as McConnell told Republicans during a Steering Committee lunch that Democrats clarified they would treat all the Ukraine aid as emergency spending and not deduct what is provided for the Pentagon from the overall defense topline for fiscal 2022.

“That’s good news,” Graham, the top Republican on the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said.

Schumer emphasized the importance of the Ukraine funding in floor remarks earlier Wednesday, saying passing a “robust” aid package in the omnibus would “send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine that we stand with them and that we stand against Putin.”

“The omnibus needs to get done next week, so I’m glad that we seem to be having bipartisan support to get that done,” he said.

David Lerman and Laura Weiss contributed to this report.

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