COVID aid stripped from U.S. spending bill after protests states would lose relief money

By: - March 9, 2022 2:45 pm

(Photo by Scalinger/iStock Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders on Wednesday pulled more than $15 billion in emergency COVID-19 aid from a government funding bill after infuriated Democrats said their states would get shut out of promised cash from a 2021 pandemic relief package.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that it was “heartbreaking” to remove the COVID-19 funding, but added that the House needed to immediately pass the rest of the $1.5 trillion spending package, including aid to Ukraine.

“Republicans resisted this deeply needed funding, demanding that every cent requested by the administration be offset, including through state and local funds scheduled to be released this spring,” the California Democrat said in a statement.

Democrats later introduced a standalone $15.6 billion pandemic aid bill that wouldn’t use previously approved COVID-19 funding to states as a way to pay for some of the new spending, though other offsets remained.

The House is set to vote on that bill Wednesday night, though it’s unlikely Senate Republicans will provide the votes necessary to move the bill through procedural votes without paying for it with cuts to state and local funding.

That means efforts to provide billions more in funding for testing, treatment and vaccines are at a standstill until congressional leaders restart bipartisan negotiations.

And given the wave of Democratic opposition to using previous COVID-19 state funding to pay for new COVID-19 funding, it’s unlikely the federal government will end up clawing back the money states have yet to draw down into their own coffers.

The state funding offsets for the defunct COVID-19 proposal came from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan pandemic relief package Democrats passed on their own in March 2021.

That decision upset numerous Democratic lawmakers who said their states would be short-changed while other states that already had received their entire allocations would not be affected.

“Why is it that we can create new money for defense spending, but when it comes to investing in our communities, the only way Congress can make a deal is by taking that same life saving American Rescue Plan money away from our communities,” Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush said in a statement.

Bush said some of the funding that would be pulled from the earlier relief legislation to pay for this pandemic aid spending “was already appropriated to help fund childcare, health care, housing and” schools in her home state.

“To turn around and now say we’re taking hundreds of millions of dollars back, in the name of bipartisanship is just unbelievable,” Bush continued.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers slammed the news from Washington and said it would cost his state $225 million. “That is just not acceptable,” he said.

Pelosi responded to the frustration from several of her members by saying during a press conference that Democrats needed agreement from Republicans to get through the Senate’s 60-vote legislative filibuster.

She also rejected calls from some Democrats that they should have been looped in earlier so they could weigh in on the proposal.

“Let’s grow up about this, okay,” Pelosi said. “We’re in a legislative process. We have a deadline for keeping government open. We have a lively negotiation. It has to be bipartisan.”

The government spending package, which was released around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, includes funding to keep the federal government operating through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. It also includes $13.6 billion in military, economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine as well as a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

The House was set to vote on the funding package early Wednesday afternoon, but action stalled as lawmakers angry with the offsets for the coronavirus aid began expressing their frustrations to leadership.

The House restarted debate just as the sun set on Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening.

Once approved, the bills will need to go to the Senate for debate and a final vote.

To give senators enough time to move through procedural votes on the bill, the House is also set to pass a temporary government funding bill through March 15.

The Senate must clear that temporary spending measure bill before funding for the government expires on Friday at midnight.

While the path forward for the larger spending package appeared to clear up Wednesday night, there wasn’t any bipartisan solution for when or how Congress would pass additional funding to address the pandemic.

The Biden administration last week asked Congress to approve $22.5 billion in COVID-19 funding within the government finding package.

Acting White House budget director Shalanda Young said in a letter that the pandemic response funding was needed to address “immediate needs to avoid disruption to ongoing COVID response efforts over the next few months.”

The Biden administration, she wrote, would use the additional funds to purchase oral antiviral treatments, monoclonal antibodies and pre-exposure prophylaxis. The funding would also be used for testing, treatment and vaccines for uninsured people as well as to “accelerate global vaccination efforts and provide urgent humanitarian relief abroad.”

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.