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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As Republicans push back on aid for vaccines, Democrats point fingers over next steps

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

President Joe Biden’s request for $22.5 million in emergency coronavirus aid to bolster the nation’s supply of coronavirus tests, vaccines and treatments, which stalled for months amid objections from both parties, is now the subject of Democratic infighting and finger-pointing on Capitol Hill. Senate Democrats say they are waiting for the House to take up legislation, while House Democrats say the next move is up to the Senate.

It has been three months since Biden’s request for additional aid collapsed after some Democrats balked at the plan for covering the cost. After that, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, stepped in to negotiate a $10 billion aid package. But then Republicans held up the measure, and Romney has since backed away from it, amid his own irritation with the White House.

Now Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi each say the other is responsible for pushing the bill forward.

A senior Democratic aide in the Senate said that Schumer is no longer pursuing negotiations with Republicans and that it is now up to Pelosi to negotiate a compromise with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

Schumer said as much in recent remarks to reporters, noting that the Senate and House had agreed in March to attach coronavirus aid to a broader spending package, but the House stripped the COVID relief from the bill.

“As you know, we passed our bill. The House didn’t,” he said. “So we’re still awaiting the House and seeing what they are going to do.”

But a Democratic aide in the House said the real problem is that the package cannot get past the Senate’s 60-vote threshold and complained that the Senate, under Schumer, has “put COVID talks on the back burner.”

The standoff is raising fresh questions about who is going to pay for the next round of coronavirus vaccines, which are likely to be offered as booster doses in the fall. An expert committee recommended Tuesday that the Food and Drug Administration plan on an updated booster shot of the coronavirus vaccines that targets some form of the omicron variant that has dominated for months.

With the aid package all but dead in Congress, the Biden administration recently said it would repurpose $10 billion from other programs to purchase vaccines and treatments. About half of that money will go to antiviral therapies; the rest will be used to purchase vaccines. But it is unclear how far the money will go if the vaccines need to be reformulated.

The White House has repeatedly pushed for $22.5 billion to replenish vaccines and treatments at home and abroad, warning about the dire consequences of inaction. But Republicans have insisted that any emergency aid must be offset by cuts to other programs.

Lawmakers and the White House thought they had a deal in March to offset the spending, in part by clawing money back from the states. But governors in both parties balked, as did some House Democrats, and the deal collapsed. At the White House, Biden warned that the administration was running out of money to pay for medications, vaccines and reimbursement of new care.

Then Romney brokered a compromise. He cut a deal with the White House and with Democrats for a slimmed-down $10 billion aid package. But Republicans blocked the package amid a fight over whether to attach language extending a Trump-era policy that allows the government to block entry to immigrants seeking asylum during the pandemic.

With limited options, the White House announced that it would divert $10 billion from other programs to pay for COVID necessities, including vaccines and treatments.

The announcement infuriated Romney, who earlier this month accused the White House of giving Republicans “patently false” information by saying it was low on funding. Other Republicans, including Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking member of the Senate health committee, are also displeased, and McConnell has shown no inclination to revive COVID relief talks.

Even so, Dr. Ashish Jha, Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters last week that he was “an eternal optimist” and still hopeful that Congress would pass a COVID relief package.

And the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters last week that, in the view of the White House, the negotiations are still very much alive.

“Our fight for COVID funding is active and regular and robust,” she said, “because COVID, as we all know, is not over, and we risk even more severe and lethal consequences for American people if we do not secure this funding — even if members of Congress may think otherwise.”

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