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Democrats seek quick COVID-19 aid deal, Jackson confirmation

Getting both done by the end of next week will require Republican cooperation

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is trying to reach a quick deal on COVID-19 funding with Republicans in time for the Senate to pass that bill and confirm Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson next week before a scheduled two-week recess.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is trying to reach a quick deal on COVID-19 funding with Republicans in time for the Senate to pass that bill and confirm Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson next week before a scheduled two-week recess. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats want to clear a supplemental spending package for COVID-19 response efforts by the end of next week before both chambers of Congress are scheduled to go on a two-week recess. But Republicans negotiating with them on offsets say a deal won’t come together until next week at the earliest. 

Even if a deal is reached, drafted into text and ready to move sometime next week, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer will have to find floor time to process the pandemic aid bill and confirm Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. Doing both in time to depart on schedule will require cooperation from all 100 senators, something often elusive.

Schumer held a negotiating session on potential offsets Wednesday afternoon with Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. 

Burr, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, left the meeting optimistic that the two sides would cut a deal but said it wouldn’t come this week.

The topline level for the package remained $15.6 billion, as the top four congressional leaders had negotiated weeks ago and originally put into the fiscal 2022 omnibus, Burr and Romney said after leaving the afternoon meeting in Schumer’s office.

But the COVID-19 supplemental, which the leaders had fully paid for by repurposing funds from earlier pandemic relief laws, was ultimately stripped from the omnibus after some Democrats rebelled against using as an offset $7 billion in aid promised to states.

The negotiators are now trying to find alternative offsets acceptable to both parties and that will lead to at least 10 Senate Republicans — the minimum needed to overcome a filibuster — supporting the bill.

Romney said both sides have agreed to use unspent funds from prior pandemic relief laws. Republicans provided Democrats a list Tuesday of pots of available money they could draw from and Democrats responded with their own list Wednesday, he said, declining to provide specific accounts under discussion.

“I think the differences are narrowing, but we haven’t eliminated them,” Romney said. “We’re going to work through the differences and see if we can reach a meeting of the minds. And we may or may not. You know, I’m an old deal guy. I’m very comfortable with deals that don’t make it.”  

‘Scary, almost’

Democrats have made clear they’re not comfortable with that option, which gives Republicans a bit of leverage. 

“The consequences of not getting COVID funding are really serious — scary, almost,” Schumer said in floor remarks Wednesday, noting he is “committed to working with the other side reasonably and in good faith.”

President Joe Biden, delivering a COVID-19 address from the White House on Wednesday, said the administration is “already seeing the consequences of congressional inaction.”

The Department of Health and Human Services has had to cancel planned orders of monoclonal antibodies and preventative therapies and will run out of the former by the end of May and the latter this fall without more funding from Congress, Biden said. The administration does not have enough funds to sustain its existing testing capacity beyond June, and it needs more money to purchase vaccines for all Americans to eventually get a second booster shot, he added.

“Congress, please act. You have to act immediately,” Biden said. “The consequences of inaction are severe. They’ll only grow with time, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Some rank-and-file Democrats have said if leadership can’t reach agreement with Republicans that Biden should use a national emergency declaration as rationale for reshuffling other government funds toward the immediate COVID-19 needs. That would be similar to what former President Donald Trump did in reprogramming Defense Department funds toward construction of a southern border wall.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said he supports the emergency declaration as a backup, but “it’s better if we legislate.”

Procedural steps

Schumer has been furiously trying to cut a COVID-19 funding deal this week, saying Tuesday that he hoped all 100 senators would consent to a time agreement once negotiated text is ready. But spending bills of any kind typically draw blockades from conservative Republicans that leadership has to work through. 

Later Tuesday, Schumer took a procedural step — filing cloture on a motion to proceed to an unrelated measure that would be the aid’s legislative vehicle — to begin preparing for floor action. 

Although he’s not said so directly, Schumer seems to want to pass the aid quickly so it doesn’t eat into floor time needed to process Jackson’s nomination. With most Republicans opposing that nomination, it will almost certainly need to go through the typical cloture hurdles to overcome a filibuster. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on Jackson’s nomination Monday, with Democratic leaders planning to quickly bring it to the floor so they can confirm her before the two-week Easter and Passover recess. 

Schumer could try to dual-track the pandemic package and Jackson’s nomination, but he would need unanimous consent from all senators to run the post-cloture clock on both at the same time. Absent cooperation, trying to get both done would require the Senate to delay its recess. 

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Wednesday he wants the Senate to pass a bill next week in time for the House to process it before the recess as well. 

“I don’t want to go home … at the end of next week without having passed COVID-19 dollars that are needed to save lives,” the Maryland Democrat said. “This is a life-and-death matter. This is not something we ought to be playing with.” 

The sense of urgency is greater among Democrats than Republicans, Senate Minority Whip John Thune said. The South Dakota Republican noted his party’s top priority in the funding package is therapeutics, and they’re told there’s enough in the pipeline to last seven weeks.

“Our folks feel like … we are in a good place right now,” Thune said. “But obviously we need to, at some point, do something on this. It’s a question of not if but when.”

Aidan Quigley, Laura Weiss and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report. 

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