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School nutrition waiver issue emerges in supplemental talks

Democrats want to extend the waivers for another year but face GOP resistance

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is seeking a one-year extension of pandemic waivers that allow schools to provide universal free meals to children, regardless of income.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is seeking a one-year extension of pandemic waivers that allow schools to provide universal free meals to children, regardless of income. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., is pushing to extend pandemic waivers set to expire June 30 that allow schools to provide universal free meals to children, regardless of income, as part of a COVID-19 funding bill that could be combined with a separate Ukraine aid package.

“I believe strongly that we need to get a vote on  …  COVID help for our children, for summer feeding programs and the school year,” Stabenow said Thursday. 

In addition to expanding free school meals to all students, the Agriculture Department waivers have provided higher per-meal reimbursement and allowed flexibility on how and where meals are served.

Extending the waivers is likely to run into Republican opposition, as it did when Democrats tried to include the provision as part of the fiscal 2022 omnibus. Stabenow blamed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for insisting that provision stay out of the $1.5 trillion catchall spending bill.

“We had fully anticipated that it would be extended for one more year in the omnibus,” she said. “At the very last minute, Sen. McConnell said, ‘No, we don’t have a COVID crisis anymore, we’re not going to continue any help.’”

Politico first reported that McConnell blocked an extension of the school meal waivers in the omnibus. A McConnell spokesman said President Joe Biden did not request an extension of the school meal waivers, which were always meant to be temporary, in his budget proposal, so they were not extended. 

With the waivers set to expire in less than two months, Stabenow is hoping McConnell will reconsider. “This is going to impact 30 million children in terms of how they get access to healthy food through the summer programs and school programs,” she said.

Republican opposition may run deeper than just McConnell, however. Stabenow’s standalone bill to restore the school meal waivers for the 2022-2023 academic year has just two GOP cosponsors: Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins.

Schools have already begun planning for summer programs that begin this month in some school districts. So if Congress is going to act in time to get meals to kids participating in those programs, it will need to move fast. 

The School Nutrition Association, which has lobbied for an extension of the waivers, has said that if school meal rules return to pre-COVID-19 status, schools and organizations would have to scale back operations to locations in communities where at least 50 percent of the children come from families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

The Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service says 90 percent of school districts served free meals and received higher reimbursement rates. In January, the department announced it would provide up to $1.5 billion to help approximately 100,000 schools cover higher food costs.

‘Put this thing together and go’

Congressional leaders want to hold a vote as soon as next week on a supplemental appropriations package that would at a minimum include $33 billion in aid for Ukraine and potentially $10 billion or more in pandemic funding. Appropriations staff will be meeting daily through the weekend in an effort to finalize the package, Senate Appropriations Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said Thursday.

Leahy said appropriators want to “put this thing together and go.” But he said several decisions about the process have yet to be made, including which chamber will go first and whether the Ukraine and COVID-19 aid measures will be combined. 

“I would prefer that. Some would not,” Leahy said of the combination approach. “It would be the best way to do it, because they’re both needed.”

Republicans are pushing to keep the aid measures separate, suggesting disagreements over pandemic funding and policies could slow down the Ukraine funding and ultimately the delivery of military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and U.S. allies in Eastern Europe. 

“Obviously, there is bipartisan support for a robust aid package. But even a strong bipartisan vote will not mean much if we don’t deliver on this promise soon,” McConnell said in floor remarks Thursday. “For this reason we cannot allow this bill to be a vessel for extraneous matters.”

While top Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have said they prefer Ukraine and pandemic aid to be combined, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has repeatedly declined to say what he will do. “Stay tuned,” he told reporters Thursday.

Therapeutics line

Stabenow said one of the arguments for combining the measure is the need to approve more funding for COVID-19 therapeutics, which Republicans have said is a priority for their party as well. Half of a $10 billion domestic COVID-19 supplemental to which both parties agreed last month was earmarked for therapeutics, such as antiviral pills.

“Other countries are lining up to purchase those,” Stabenow said. “And so it’s not inconsequential, the timing on a COVID package.”

The $10 billion in COVID-19 aid has been stalled for nearly a month over GOP demands for an amendment vote upholding Title 42, a pandemic-related border policy allowing for asylum-seeking migrants to be expelled from the U.S. that the Biden administration is set to lift on May 23. 

Democratic leaders are trying to see if both parties can agree to compromise language specifying how to deal with an expected surge of migrants at the border once Title 42 is lifted, Senate Majority Whip and Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said Thursday.

Given the delay of pandemic funds, Democrats say they are pushing to increase the topline beyond the $10 billion originally agreed to, including adding at least $5 billion in international aid for vaccines and other supplies that was omitted from the original package because of lack of offsets. 

“We would like very much to see that back to an original number that was higher than that,” Stabenow said. 

The White House’s initial March request for pandemic response funding totaled $22.5 billion.

Ellyn Ferguson and Suzanne Monyak contributed to this report.

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