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Senate close to COVID-19 aid deal; global funds in question

McConnell says dropping aid for international vaccination campaign would be 'unfortunate'

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell anticipated a 'skinnied down' COVID-19 aid package.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell anticipated a 'skinnied down' COVID-19 aid package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators negotiating a COVID-19 supplemental funding package have an “agreement in principle” to provide roughly $10 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to stock up on waning domestic supplies for combating the virus, according to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Blunt, the top Republican on the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said both parties have tentatively agreed to offsets for the $10 billion that would repurpose unspent funds from prior pandemic relief laws.

The offsets negotiators agreed to include $2.2 billion from unused grant funds for venues like zoos and theaters and $2 billion in untapped assistance to the aviation and manufacturing industry, Blunt said. His comments to reporters came after a Republican Conference lunch in which lead GOP negotiator Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah briefed his colleagues on the agreement in principle. 

The agreement, if it holds, would likely leave out $5 billion in foreign assistance from the $15.6 billion total congressional leaders had previously agreed to in negotiations over the fiscal 2022 omnibus funding package. The COVID-19 supplemental was stripped out of the omnibus after some Democrats objected to $7 billion in state aid that was being tapped for one of the offsets, and lawmakers have spent the past few weeks negotiating a new package of offsets. 

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., who had been negotiating the deal with Romney and Blunt, said the $5 billion in foreign assistance was “out” because Democrats did not agree to enough offsets to fund that piece. But Romney said negotiators were still debating whether to take $1 billion of the $10 billion slated for HHS and instead give that to the United States Agency for International Development for foreign assistance.

“It’s either zero to USAID or a billion to USAID and that’s just uncertain,” Romney said. “The Republican side of the [aisle] is pretty agnostic on that. It’s more a White House and Democrat side” issue.

Cloture vote delayed

In anticipation of a deal coming together this week, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, had filed cloture Tuesday on the motion to proceed to the legislative vehicle, which was scheduled to ripen Thursday afternoon. Schumer announced on the Senate floor around 2 p.m. Thursday that the Senate would not take that first procedural vote in “a sign of good faith” that the deal will be finalized in time to pass it next week.

Schumer seemed to acknowledge in floor remarks earlier Thursday that the package may be downsized but sought to shift the blame on that to Republicans. 

“We would like considerably more money than our Republican colleagues, but we need to reach 60 votes to get something passed through the Senate,” he said. 

Romney told reporters before the GOP lunch that negotiators agreed the offsets would come from previously appropriated pandemic relief fund outlays that remain unspent. He said they’re waiting on official Congressional Budget Office scoring of the offsets under discussion to verify the exact amount of outlays that are available for repurposing.  

Romney did not have an estimate on when that information would be available, saying only it would come “as soon as the CBO has got it.” 

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Thursday afternoon that offsets in the framework agreement are being vetted within the GOP conference. He added members view $5 billion in new funding for therapeutics in the package as a requirement.

“There’s still questions about it, but it was a good, frank discussion,” Thune said of talks over lunch.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking at an event hosted by Punchbowl News, confirmed that the package would likely “be skinnied down from $15 to $10 [billion]” with the foreign assistance on the chopping block. 

“That has the potential to take out the international vaccine part, which I think is terribly unfortunate,” McConnell said. The Hill first reported discussions about removing the $5 billion foreign aid piece Wednesday night.

While most of the $5 billion in foreign assistance was slated to provide vaccines to other countries to help increase global vaccination rates, it also included funding to help vulnerable populations with supplies needed to fight the virus, including therapeutics, personal protective equipment, oxygen, food and clean water.

Hope springs eternal

It’s not totally clear that the push to include foreign aid is over.

“My hope is that we will find a path towards adding more for the international side,” Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Chris Coons, D-Del., said.

Whatever the Senate is able to pass would also have to get the House’s approval next week before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk, and the foreign assistance is a top priority for many progressives in that chamber. The White House requested $22.5 billion for COVID-19 response efforts earlier this month, so getting less than half of that in a final bill would deal a blow to the administration’s efforts.

“I think what the Republicans are doing, either they don’t care or they don’t know,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday when asked at her weekly news conference about the foreign assistance potentially being cut from the package. “It’s a problem. It’s a shame.”

Pelosi emphasized that even at $15.6 billion, the package wasn’t big enough for the government’s long-term COVID-19 response efforts. “We’re going to need more money,” she said.

Leaving House Democrats’ weekly whip meeting Thursday morning, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said her caucus would likely seek to restore the $5 billion for global vaccination efforts. But she seemed resigned to the fact that they’d need to accept what the Senate is able to do.

“Can we get enough ‘yes’ votes to make sure that we do the foreign assistance? I hope that we’re going to be able to do it. I don’t know if there would be too many ‘no’ votes [if it’s not included], but it’s so important,” Schakowsky said.

A group of House Democrats leading a COVID-19 Global Vaccination Caucus — Reps. Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin — released a joint statement Thursday saying an COVID-19 supplemental that cuts funding for overseas vaccinations is “unacceptable.”

“Failing to secure this funding means people around the world will die and future variants and surges will be more likely here at home,” the five Democrats said. “The United States has a moral imperative to lead the world in vaccine diplomacy. We must fund global COVID vaccinations and treatments.”

Niels Lesniewski, Aidan Quigley and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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