White House aid request complicates omnibus spending talks

Another stopgap will be needed if appropriators don't get a deal by Tuesday, Shelby says

Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, right — here with Chairman Patrick Leahy at a hearing last June — said lawmakers need to get a final deal by Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, right — here with Chairman Patrick Leahy at a hearing last June — said lawmakers need to get a final deal by Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 3, 2022 at 8:37pm

Negotiations over an omnibus spending package remained far from complete Thursday as the late arrival of a White House supplemental funding request threw a wrench in the talks. 

The White House on Thursday formally asked lawmakers to attach to the fiscal 2022 spending package $32.5 billion in emergency funds for government response efforts to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Russian war with Ukraine. 

The long-awaited details from the administration on its justification for the extra spending, on top of the roughly $1.5 trillion expected to be appropriated for the current fiscal year, come barely a week before stopgap funding expires March 11. 

To pass the omnibus before that deadline, Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said lawmakers need to get a final deal by Tuesday — and even that may be too late to avoid the need for another short-term continuing resolution. 

“We made good progress this week. But we make progress and we’re stalled,” he said. “And we can’t afford to stall this weekend. If we do, we’re headed for a CR.”

While both parties are eager to provide aid to Ukraine, Republicans continue to question whether additional appropriations are needed for the pandemic when funds are still available from prior relief laws. 

“We ought to be careful before we just go borrowing more money,” Shelby said.

More than two thirds of the White House request, or $22.5 billion, would be used to address the pandemic needs like therapeutics, testing and vaccines, while the other $10 billion is for responding to the Ukraine crisis.

Most lawmakers seemed comfortable with the $10 billion in Ukraine-related aid, with many pleased it came up from the $6.4 billion the White House floated earlier in the week. But Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., warned, “I think there’ll still be a debate over that new number.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made no promises about whether the supplemental funds would be included in the omnibus, noting it has a short fuse given the March 11 deadline, but made clear Democrats would try. 

"At the present time, the fastest way for us to get the Ukraine money is for us to have it on this legislation,” she said. “So I'd hope that we can just come to agreement to putting it forth.”

GOP cool to COVID-19 aid

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., ranking member of the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the GOP appetite for more emergency spending on COVID-19 is “pretty low.” 

Pelosi acknowledged Republicans’ hesitation but argued the $22.5 billion the White House requested “is absolutely necessary.” 

“In fact, we probably will need more as we need more therapies," she said. "So I would hope that they would see the wisdom of the science."

Republicans say that while there may be a need to spend more on therapeutics, testing and vaccinations, they don’t see a need to further add to the deficit when there are unused funds that could be reallocated from other accounts Congress approved in prior pandemic relief laws. 

“Not nearly all of that has been spent. A lot of it can be repurposed,” Cole said. 

Pelosi seemed open to compromise on that front, saying how to pay for the COVID-19 aid, “this or that, that's a negotiation there."

Senate appropriator and Budget ranking member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he understands his colleagues wanting an accounting of unspent funds, but he’s ready to spend more money fighting the virus if some of it is offset or reprogrammed. 

“It doesn’t have to be dollar for dollar, but if we could reprogram some money and reduce the [deficit] impact of the $22 billion, I think we’re in the ball game,” he said.

But other Republicans were even cool to reprogramming. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said with high inflation the government needs to stop shoveling money out the door that may have otherwise gone unspent.

“At some point, we got to say, enough's enough,” he said.

Disaster dispute 

The White House supplemental request did not include any disaster aid, angering Louisiana GOP Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, who are seeking nearly $2 billion to help their state recover from multiple hurricanes over the past two years. 

"I'm very concerned that there's not a disaster request," Cassidy said. "Very concerned. And that's certainly going to motivate how I vote."

Kennedy wouldn’t say how he would vote but noted Congress doesn’t typically pass disaster relief without a formal request. He said the White House had long assured him they’d make one, expected to also include relief for tornados that hit Kentucky and New York, but they’re now playing hardball. 

“Their position is sure we'll make the request, but you got to deliver the votes for all my extra COVID money,” Kennedy said. “And the votes aren't there on my side of the aisle for the COVID money for the very simple reason that we don't need the COVID money. They've got $100 billion that they haven't spent, for God's sakes.” 

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators that’s negotiated a deal on a final round of restaurant and small-business relief is still working to get its bill attached to the omnibus. 

Senate Small Business Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., who leads the negotiations, said he had a lot of conversations about that Thursday and there’s strong bipartisan support for including it, but no decision. He said he doesn’t think the dispute over the pandemic aid request will impact his package.

Avoiding another stopgap

Cornyn said the virus aid dispute is “making it less likely” that lawmakers will get the omnibus done on time. But Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., was optimistic about meeting the March 11 deadline, downplaying disagreements. 

“The negotiations are literally about 1,000 pieces. No one piece will make or break it,“ he said.

House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, both declined to speculate about a short-term stopgap, even if only for a few of the 12 bills. 

“We’re trying to avoid that,” DeLauro said, while Granger offered that the two sides were "still in the talking phase."

Shelby suggested that another stopgap would likely cover all 12 bills rather than just those lawmakers couldn’t complete on time. He said the latter strategy would be “fraught with danger because you pass a few bills and the others you wrap in a CR and maybe [a deal] never comes.”

Cole said the need for more Ukraine aid should provide urgency, but appropriators know a short-term CR is always an option if needed.

“We’re not going to let the government shut down under any circumstances,” he said.

Cole said negotiations on the Labor-HHS-Education bill, the largest piece of the nondefense pie, are “moving along” but as is often the case, it will probably be one the last of the 12 that is finalized.  

The dollar disagreements have “come down considerably and most of the disputes are over policy language — climate change, things that belong in authorizing legislation, not appropriations,” he said.

Democrats also have not yet formally agreed to include in the bill the longstanding Hyde amendment language that bars federal funding for abortions in most cases, after leaving it out of earlier House and Senate versions, Cole said.

“There’ll be a year-long CR if it doesn’t happen. The Democrats know that,” he said, noting he believes the majority is just “trying to figure out who’s going to take the fall for doing what they know they have to do.”

Another typically problematic spending bill, for the Department of Homeland Security, seemed to be on a better track than earlier this week when negotiators were stuck on immigration provisions.

"We were stuck for a little while, but we've been trading some constructive paper in the last 24 hours, so I'm hopeful that we will not be the ... sticking point," Murphy, who leads the Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said Thursday.

Senate Transportation-HUD Chair Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said his piece was "pretty well done" except for "a few open items that will likely be negotiated at the leadership level." 

Separate votes?

Granger and Cole said the omnibus talks have included strategy discussions on how to advance the package when it’s ready for the House floor. 

Some lawmakers want to use a procedure known as "dividing the question" to hold separate votes on the defense and nondefense portions of the bill. The rule setting up debate on the divided portions of the bill would specify they would merge into one package before being sent to the Senate. 

DeLauro declined to speculate, saying, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Cole, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee, said he prefers to have a single vote, but, “I’ll live with two if that’s what we have to do.”

While the move to divide the bill would appeal more to Republicans who have no problem spending on defense but loathe supporting increased spending in most domestic accounts, Cole said there’s some Democrats who oppose a beefy defense budget who may also prefer separating the two.

“Does it pass better if it’s two or does it pass better if it’s one?” he asked. “Both sides need to swallow a little castor oil and get it done.”

David Lerman, Caitlin Reilly, Suzanne Monyak and Peter Cohn contributed to this report.