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Congress' standalone bill for $15.6 billion in COVID funding faces dim prospects

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Congress reaches $1.5 trillion bipartisan deal
Congress reaches $1.5 trillion bipartisan deal to prevent a government shutdown 10:07

Washington — A dispute in the House over how to pay for $15.6 billion in additional funding to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Congress to pursue the relief through standalone legislation after it was stripped from the massive $1.5 trillion government spending bill that cleared the lower chamber Wednesday.

But the prospects of both chambers approving more money to fund the fight against COVID-19 appear to be dim, since the $15.6 billion measure from House Democrats faces steep odds to passage in the evenly-divided Senate.

It's unclear when the House will vote on the separate bill introduced by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, on Wednesday, as House Democrats decamped Washington for a retreat in Philadelphia after passing the sweeping spending measure and legislation banning Russian oil imports into the United States late Wednesday night.

The $15.6 billion is partially paid for by returning unspent funds to the Treasury and does not include any offsets from coronavirus relief funds awarded to state and local governments, according to the committee, which appears to be intended to answer rank-and-file Democrats who objected to the initial strategy to pay for the latest pandemic relief proposal. 

The supplemental funding to assist the ongoing federal response to the pandemic was initially introduced as part of the sprawling government spending measure, the result of months of negotiations by Republican and Democratic appropriations in both chambers. The package also includes $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and Eastern European allies following the invasion of Russian forces — aid that has broad bipartisan support.

But as the lower chamber moved toward a vote on the package, the first step to averting a partial government shutdown ahead of a Friday deadline, the dispute over offsets for the $15.6 billion burst into public view, ultimately forcing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to remove the pandemic money from the legislation.

Republicans demanded the COVID funding be fully offset by cuts elsewhere, and Democratic leaders agreed to cover half the cost by using leftover, unused funds from previous pandemic aid packages. This strategy was met with opposition from some House Democrats who said their states had plans to spend the money directed to them in earlier pandemic relief measures.

Rep. Angie Craig, a Democrat from Minnesota, called the offsets for the COVID funding in the initial deal "completely unacceptable" and said her state stood to lose $253 million in pandemic aid.

"Somebody needs to figure out how to do this in a more fair manner," she told reporters Wednesday. "Thirty of the 50 states just had some of their COVID relief money that's already been put in a plan put into a claw-back position, so either 50 of the states need to participate here, or we need to figure out another way to do this more fairly."

Pelosi ultimately removed the pandemic funding from the omnibus spending package, a move she called "heartbreaking." When asked about the pushback from her Democratic colleagues about the initial mechanism for offsetting the $15.6 billion through unused assistance promised to states, the California Democrat said the party's margins in the Senate meant there had to be compromise with Republican negotiators.

"Let's grow up about this. We're in a legislative process. We have a deadline for keeping government open. We had a lively negotiation. It has to be bipartisan," she said.

The standalone COVID funding bill is likely to clear the House, where Democrats can lose up to four votes and still pass legislation. But its fate is less clear in the Senate because Democrats hold a razor-thin majority and it takes 60 votes for legislation to advance.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday he is "deeply disappointed" the request for COVID funding was dropped from the House bill but vowed Democrats will "keep fighting to make sure we get that money approved as soon as possible."

Still, three dozen Senate Republicans raised questions about the need for more COVID relief in a letter to the White House last week and requested an accounting of how the federal government has allocated the $5.7 trillion in emergency aid already approved by Congress earlier in the pandemic.

The White House, though, had requested $22.5 billion  "to avoid disruption to ongoing COVID response efforts." 

Slashed even further by Congress with the $15.6 billion it put forth following bipartisan and bicameral negotiations, the latest proposal includes $10.6 billion for securing COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, as well as to develop new vaccines that protect against future variants. It also directs nearly $4.5 billion to help fight COVID-19 around the world.

Zak Hudak contributed to this report

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