Congress cuts COVID-19 funds loose from $1.5T spending package

Lawmakers say they have come to an accord on a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill that, as of a Wednesday afternoon cut, will not include any COVID-19 relief funding.

A bipartisan draft circulating earlier in the day had outlined $15.6 billion in new spending on domestic and international COVID-19 support, down from the $22.5 billion requested by the Biden administration last week and the $30 billion it had hoped for back in February.

But in a letter to party members circulated Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that the COVID-19 funds have now been cut due to pushback from Republican lawmakers.

"Because of Republican insistence—and the resistance by a number of our members to making those offsets—we will go back to the Rule Committee to remove COVID funding and accommodate the revised bill," she wrote in the letter. "We must proceed with the omnibus today, which includes emergency funding for Ukraine and urgent funding to meet the needs of America's families." 

Pelosi said that Republican resistance to the COVID-19 spending had forced Democrats to offset about half of the billions included in the morning's draft through other expired programs' remaining funds. 

She also indicated that her party would be revisiting the issue of COVID-19 relief funding in future discussions.

"It is heartbreaking to remove the COVID funding, and we must continue to fight for urgently needed COVID assistance, but unfortunately that will not be included in this bill," she wrote.

The sweeping bipartisan package—which also grants a five-month extension to pandemic telehealth flexibilities—is being voted on in the House Wednesday and could be put to the Senate by the end of the week.

Friday night marks the deadline for a federal government shutdown, although an extension through March 15 is expected to be passed so the Senate may have time review the omnibus spending package.

The draft that was circulated in the House Wednesday morning included $10.6 billion for coronavirus prevention and preparation in the U.S. and $5 billion for international COVID-19 efforts.

The former bucket largely comprised a broad list of potential pandemic expenses such as those related to COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, services and supplies. Also listed under the draft’s $10.6 billion was $750 million for research and trials related to vaccines for emerging coronavirus variants as well as sustaining and expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity.

The draft’s $5 billion of international COVID-19 support, meanwhile, was dominated by funds for COVID-19 prevention, preparation and response under “Global Health Programs,” with a remaining $500 million covering various humanitarian needs related to the pandemic.

Last week’s $22.5 billion COVID-19 ask from the White House had sought $12.2 billion in funding for the procurement of medicines and vaccines alone.

Had the White House gotten its way, $2 billion more would have gone toward testing and related supplies; another $1.5 billion toward testing, vaccination and treatment reimbursements; and $1.5 billion for future variant research. The current draft did not specify funding for reimbursements of uncovered COVID-19 care.

That push came under scrutiny from Republican lawmakers, who last week said they were hesitant to provide billions in additional COVID-19 funding without a clear accounting of how previous funds had been used.

In comments to reporters that preceded the COVID-19 funding cuts cited by Politico, Senator Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, acknowledged that the COVID-19 funding wasn’t likely to last beyond the short term.

“[The White House has] never pretended that they thought this money would last for very long,” he said.

Last week saw the White House pull back the curtain on the next phase of its COVID-19 response strategy. The 96-page document outlined four primary goals the government will be focused on in the months and years to come: protecting against and treating COVID-19, preparing for new variants of COVID-19, preventing economic and educational shutdowns and driving more vaccination outside of the U.S.

Shortly after, former Biden administration COVID-19 advisers and other experts released their own road map arguing for additional, but often overlapping, measures compared to what was proposed by the White House.