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Democrats mull COVID-19 aid options as House preps new bill

Price tag, unrelated policy riders get in way of swift deal on multibillion-dollar funding effort

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., says a school meals waiver extension would be expensive and benefit households that don't need it.
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., says a school meals waiver extension would be expensive and benefit households that don't need it. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Third time’s a charm. Or so Democrats hope as they attempt to negotiate a third COVID-19 funding deal after their previous two bipartisan agreements — one for $15.6 billion in domestic and international aid, and a second for $10 billion in only domestic funds — stalled out. 

The House is taking the lead on the latest iteration. But it’s not yet clear whether they’ll hold out for a bipartisan, bicameral agreement or attempt to move a Democrat-led version that would provide more funding, closer to President Joe Biden’s original $22.5 billion request. 

“All the options are on the table,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday. “But it’s critical to get it done. And the fastest way to get it done is have an agreement on the four corners.” 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has previously expressed interest in going beyond Biden’s $22.5 billion request, especially the longer Congress waits to deliver aid. The administration’s ask was made months ago and only intended to be an assessment of immediate needs for vaccines, therapeutics, testing and other supplies, both domestically and internationally.

But with Republicans hesitant to approve any new pandemic funding, particularly if it would add to the deficit, Democrats are now tempering expectations about what they can pass.

Hoyer made no promises that a new aid bill would be able to exceed the $10 billion in domestic funding senators negotiated last month, given the GOP demand for offsets. 

“I think the president’s original request of $22 billion, which he probably felt ought to be higher than that, was justified,” he said, while noting Democrats had to compromise in previous iterations and likely would again to get Republican support. 

Both the $10 billion measure that stalled in the Senate last month over a pandemic-related border policy and an earlier $15.6 billion version that leaders pulled from the fiscal 2022 omnibus were paid for by repurposing unspent funds from prior pandemic relief laws.

But some rank-and-file House Democrats objected to a $7 billion clawback of state aid used to offset the $15.6 billion version, which led to its removal from the catch-all spending bill and the new Senate-negotiated $10 billion bill. 

[Pandemic aid funds pulled as House aims to wrap up omnibus]

Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on more than $10 billion in offsets in the Senate negotiation, which is why $5 billion in international aid that was in the first agreement was left out of the second. 

‘The best we can’

It’s unclear if the new House-led negotiation will bear more fruit and produce a bill larger than the $10 billion senators negotiated. 

“We’re going to see what we can do,” House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said. “The Senate has been woefully irresponsible,” she added, calling the GOP demand for offsets “unlike anything we’ve ever done” in negotiations on emergency supplemental funding bills.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., was similarly noncommittal on increasing the funding.

“We’re working on it and trying to do the best we can to get as much money as possible,” he said. 

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., and other Republicans have said if Democrats try to add more spending they will have to negotiate more offsets. Thune also warned them against trying to include “lots of House goodies or policy riders” if they want the bill to be able to get through the Senate.  

Neither Hoyer, DeLauro or Pallone could predict exactly when an aid package would be ready to bring to the House floor. 

“It’s way past time,” Hoyer said. “We’re working very hard to try to get consensus to get it done, but the Republicans don’t seem to think there’s a critical need.”

School meal waivers

One issue that could complicate efforts to get a bipartisan deal is a push from Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., to include a one-year extension of Agriculture Department waivers that have allowed schools to provide universal free meals to children, regardless of income, with more flexibility on how and where meals are served. The pandemic waivers, which have also provided higher per-meal reimbursement rates, are set to expire June 30.

Hoyer said extending the waivers is a priority for House Democrats too, but it’s an open question whether that could get done in the COVID-19 aid bill. 

[School nutrition waiver issue emerges in supplemental talks]

“The absolute essentials are vaccines and testing here,” he said. “Next, absolutely essential, is to make sure that people around the world are getting some help as well.”

Most Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Agriculture ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., do not think the school meal waivers need to be extended. 

“It’s tremendously expensive and a lot of those children can afford to pay for own their meals,” Boozman said. “I’d rather take the dollars and give it to young people that need the help and need additional help versus subsidizing lots of families that simply don’t need the help.”

Title 42 obstacle

 If there’s a third bipartisan agreement on COVID-19 funding, the Senate will still need to deal with the pandemic border policy dispute that led to Republicans filibustering the $10 billion bill last month, or the new legislation will face the same fate. 

At issue is the Title 42 public health directive started under the Trump administration that allows migrants crossing the border to seek asylum in the U.S. to be expelled during the pandemic. The Biden administration is set to lift Title 42 on May 23, and Republicans want an amendment vote on the COVID-19 aid bill to prevent that from happening. 

“There’s a broad bipartisan demand for continuing Title 42. And I think that’s the context in which that vote ought to occur,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday.

Since several moderate Democrats support extending Title 42, the amendment would likely pass. That’s why Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who along with a majority of Democratic lawmakers supports ending Title 42, declined to open the $10 billion COVID-19 measure to amendments last month. 

On Tuesday, Schumer wouldn’t say whether he’d allow a Title 42 amendment vote on whatever version the House comes up with next. 

“Our Republican friends should not be blocking COVID legislation. We don’t know what they might throw in the way. We don’t even know if they want to pass it,” Schumer told reporters. “When the House passes it, we will do everything we can to get COVID legislation passed.” 

The amendment Republicans would offer, if allowed, is expected to be similar to a bipartisan measure from Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., that would keep Title 42 in place until 60 days after the surgeon general sends Congress written notification that the COVID-19 public health emergency has been terminated. 

That measure also requires the administration to submit to Congress no later than halfway through that 60-day post termination window its plan for addressing an expected influx of migrants once Title 42 is lifted. 

The Department of Homeland Security has submitted a plan last week in anticipation of Title 42 ending May 23 as scheduled, but members of both parties have panned it as insufficient. 

Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., has said a possible compromise on Title 42 would provide more requirements for the administration in dealing with the expected migrant influx. Durbin also serves as his caucus’ top vote counter in his capacity as majority whip.

Most Democrats are prepared to take a vote on a Title 42 amendment to pass COVID-19 aid, Durbin said, noting he sympathizes with Democrats who view that as a tough vote ahead of the midterm elections this fall. 

“Schumer has tried to get us into a circumstance where that’s not called,” Durbin said. “There’s some things you just can’t achieve. I know he’s trying his best.”

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