COVID-19 funding and Congress: No clear path forward

Aid to boost the availability of COVID-19 tests, therapeutics and vaccines nationwide continues to dwell in a congressional logjam. 

The stalemate is about to hit the two-month mark. President Joe Biden signed into law March 15 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 can't proceed without the vote, they say.

U.S. lawmakers began their two-week recess without acting on a $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 this week insisted they will not allow the Senate to proceed unless Democrats allow a vote on amendments, especially a proposal to preserve restrictions on migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, The Washington Post reports. 

Some Democrats hoped to break the gridlock by tying COVID-19 aid to a measure to provide roughly $40 billion in new assistance to Ukraine. The White House asked Congress to separate the two issues May 9, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) noting he had urged President Biden to divide the measures so the COVID-19 standoff did not delay humanitarian support, according to The Post. The House passed the Ukraine aid bill May 10. 

Congress' partisan inertia on COVID-19 funding persists despite warnings from the White House for weeks about the risks of underfunding. 

"Without timely COVID funding, more Americans will die needlessly," President Biden said in a May 9 statement. "We will lose our place in line for America to order new COVID treatments and vaccines for the fall, including next-generation vaccines under development, and be unable to maintain our supply of COVID tests."

This week, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, said the U.S. may see a "pretty sizable wave" of COVID-19 infections in the fall and winter as the virus continues to evolve and immunity wanes. 

"If we don't get ahead of this thing … we may see a pretty sizable wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths this fall and winter," Dr. Jha said. "Whether that happens or not is largely up to us as a country. If we can prepare and if we can act, we can prevent that."

Also this week, a senior administration official told NBC News that the next generation of COVID-19 shots may be available this fall only to those at high risk of severe illness if Congress does not approve more emergency funding to buy the shots. 

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