Congress Drops New COVID Funding After a Spending Meltdown

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did what she had to do after a revolt in the ranks. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Unless you are a fan of insider Beltway madness, you may have missed the meltdown in the U.S. House of Representatives on February 9 over an omnibus appropriations bill. The good news is that a suddenly quite possible government shutdown this weekend was averted, as the House passed an omnibus measure funding most federal government operations until the end of the year along with emergency funding for stepped-up aid to Ukraine. The bad news is that $15 billion in COVID relief money, much of it designed to pay for a new focus on testing and treatment as part of a “living with COVID” strategy, was stripped out of the bill. Governors of both parties freaked out when they learned the new funding would be significantly offset by a clawback of unused state COVID funds from last year’s stimulus bill. With Republicans mostly united in disdain for any new COVID spending, it only took a few House Democrats to derail passage of the omnibus. So Speaker Nancy Pelosi yanked the problematic provisions and got the essential job done.

The trouble now, of course, is that the new COVID funding will (barring some unforeseen crisis) no longer be nestled in must-pass legislation that at least some Senate Republicans will grudgingly support. So an already polarized atmosphere over COVID strategy and the money to implement it could lead to paralyzing gridlock, even as the Biden administration focuses on testing and treatment needs and prepares for possible new variants. As the New York Times explains, it’s not like the old unused money can just be reprogrammed overnight:

Over the past two years, Congress has appropriated more than $370 billion in pandemic response funds to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The bulk of that money has been directed to health care providers; less than half, about $140 billion, was for testing, therapeutics and vaccines.

So the administration, seeing the omnibus freight train (made more urgent by the need for aid to Ukraine) coming down the track, asked Congress for $22 billion in new COVID money, including “$12 billion for procuring treatments and vaccines and $4.25 billion to support the global pandemic response.” Appropriators decided to provide $15 billion, even as Republicans from sea to shining sea howled that it was all wasteful and unnecessary. Now, $15 billion has dropped to zero. The Times continues:

A White House spokesman, Kevin Munoz, warned on Wednesday that if Congress did not appropriate more funds, there would be consequences beyond the loss of antibody treatments. He said testing capacity would decline in March and the fund that pays for Covid testing and treatments for tens of millions of uninsured Americans would run out of money in April.

For once, at least, the House Democratic meltdown was not really the product of the usual ideological divisions in the Donkey Party; it was more a matter of constituent services, as states were affected to varying degrees by the clawback provisions, as Politico observed:

More than a dozen lawmakers from affected states held up the bigger spending bill by threatening to vote against the procedural motion that must precede it on the floor. Several members from impacted states, including Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), Angie Craig (D-Minn.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), streamed through Pelosi’s office on Wednesday afternoon as the caucus scrambled for a solution.

“It’s really not fair because some states got the money all at once, some states didn’t. The first case was diagnosed in Washington. So we also had it much earlier and we had to deal with it. I don’t know if we can fix it in this or we can fix it somewhere else,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), whose home state stood to lose $400 million, according to its Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

At this point, though, congressional Republicans are likely to object to both the continued availability of unused “old” COVID money and to any and all “new” COVID money, even if they are for very different purposes. It’s a mess. But at least the government didn’t shut down and Democrats lived to fight again on COVID funding. The fight just got a lot more difficult. We should all devoutly hope there is not a new variant “surge” on the immediate horizon.

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Congress Drops New COVID Funding After a Spending Meltdown