By Lisa Hagen
The White House gave a stark warning on Tuesday: The administration won’t be able to keep up its response to the coronavirus pandemic and provide more vaccines, treatments and testing if Congress doesn’t quickly approve a new round of federal relief.
President Joe Biden is stepping up his push for more relief after House Democratic leaders last week took out the $15.6 billion allocated for pandemic prevention from legislation to fund the government after members raised concerns about the funding mechanism. Now, the Biden administration is seeking an even larger amount, requesting $22.5 billion in emergency aid. A senior White House official said the team has held two dozen calls and meetings with members.
As surges reappear in other countries, the White House is urging a proactive approach before the U.S. battles a similar situation or sees a new variant. Without new funding, officials argue the administration won’t be able to provide enough additional boosters or “variant specific” vaccines to every American.
When asked on a Tuesday call with reporters about a fourth shot, the senior official said there’s enough for immunocompromised individuals who need another dose, but if all Americans eventually require another, the White House would need more funding in order to provide that.
On top of that, the Biden administration further warns that it won’t be able to keep up with the current domestic testing capacity past June or purchase more antiviral pills. The White House’s monoclonal antibody treatment supply is also subject to run out in late May at the earliest and it is unable to purchase more. And the fund that reimburses medical providers for treating uninsured Americans will see cuts this month and end entirely by April.
“For months, we’ve made clear to Congress, on a bipartisan basis, that the funding for tests, treatments and vaccines was drying up and that additional funds would be needed,” the senior official said on the call. “The failure to provide additional resources soon will have severe consequences in the near term.”
The increased pressure for a new round of pandemic relief comes as Congress sees a number of outbreaks among lawmakers this week, several days after House Democrats’ in-person retreat in Philadelphia. Both Congress and the White House are making strides toward resuming regular operations. The White House announced Tuesday that it’ll reopen for public tours on April 15, while the Capitol may reportedly reopen to the public in phases starting on March 28.
It’s emblematic of the greater push to get back to some semblance of normal as vaccine and mask mandates go away. Based on a new framework from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 98% of Americans reside in areas where masking indoors isn’t needed.
But Democrats, especially Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, have argued for more pandemic relief, especially as a way to protect against possible future variants. While the caseload is still low, the U.S. is seeing an uptick in the highly transmissible subvariant, BA.2 or “stealth” omicron.
House and Senate Democrats are promising separate votes on the funding, but the fate of such legislation is highly uncertain, especially in a split 50-50 Senate narrowly controlled by the party.
Unlike in the House where they could likely pass it on their own, Democrats will need to rely on at least 10 GOP senators to reach the 60-vote threshold and avoid a filibuster. Without bipartisan support, the legislation will ultimately stall in Congress.