Congressional deal for COVID-19 funds 'all but dead' after heated hearing

A tense June 16 Senate health committee hearing weakened the path forward for $10 billion in compromised funding for COVID-19, which has already stalled in Congress for months. 

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has led negotiations with the White House over new pandemic relief funding and brought the Senate close to a bipartisan $10 billion COVID-19 funding deal in March. At the June 16 hearing, he accused the Biden administration of giving him "patently false" information when it said it was out of money to buy more coronavirus vaccines and treatments, according to The Washington Post, which described the deal now as "all but dead."

Mr. Romney said he was stunned when White House officials announced last week they would repurpose $10 billion in federal funds meant for COVID-19 testing and protective gear to instead spend the money on vaccines and treatments. Mr. Romney contended this means the administration had money for coronavirus supplies after all.

"Washington operates on a relationship of trust between the respective parties," Mr. Romney said. "I hope that there's an appreciation that for the administration to say they could not purchase these things, and then after several months, divert some funds and then purchase them is unacceptable, and makes our ability to work together … very much shaken to the core."

The White House has maintained it would have to shortchange some types of supplies by repurposing funds to replenish others since the $10 billion in compromised funding has been stuck in Congress for months. Dawn O'Connell, assistant health secretary for emergency preparedness and response, testified that the administration has had to make "significant trade-offs — trade-offs that none of us wanted to make" — in rerouting the $10 billion, The New York Times reports.

"We should be apprised of what those trade-offs are, and have that discussion and help make that decision together," Mr. Romney told Ms. O'Connell. "You shouldn't be able to say: 'Hey, we're looking at trade-offs. We're not going to tell you about them.'" 

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the top Republican on the committee, concluded the June 16 hearing by saying Democrats and the White House are "trying to pressure Republicans to open a checkbook, sign the check and let the administration fill in the balance with no detail on how, when or what was being asked for," the Times reports.

The impasse for aid to boost the availability of COVID-19 tests, therapeutics and vaccines nationwide dates back to March, when President Joe Biden signed a sweeping $1.5 trillion bill that funds the government through September. The legislation did not include COVID-19 funding the White House had requested from Congress because of partisan disagreement about offsetting the funding.

Senate negotiators agreed to a $10 billion COVID-19 aid package April 4, repurposing earlier unused COVID-19 funds. A day later, the legislative package was complicated by conflict over President Biden's immigration policy, with Republican senators calling for a vote on an amendment that would keep in place the Title 42 border restrictions, which allow limits on immigration due to the pandemic. The bill couldn't proceed without the vote, they said. 

U.S. lawmakers began their two-week recess without acting on the $10 billion COVID-19 relief package, returning to session the week of April 25. Since then, little movement has been made for COVID-19 aid. GOP lawmakers again insisted in May they will not allow the Senate to proceed unless Democrats allow a vote on amendments, especially the COVID-19 immigration restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The June 16 session was the first Senate health committee hearing on the coronavirus response since January.


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