By ALAN FRAM – Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers on Thursday came close to shaking hands with a reduced bipartisan compromise that will provide a new $10 billion to fight COVID-19, a deal that could reach final congressional approval next week .
The price was lower than an earlier $15.6 billion deal between the two parties, which collapsed weeks ago after House Democrats refused to cut unused pandemic aid to states to pay for it. President Joe Biden requested $22.5 billion in early March. As leaders hoped to get the package through Congress quickly, the lower cost seemed to reflect both parties’ calculations that agreeing on additional savings would be too difficult any time soon.
The effort, which would fund moves like vaccines, treatments and testing, comes as Biden and other Democrats have warned the government is running out of money to fight the pandemic. At the same time, the more portable Omicron variant BA.2 has spread rapidly in the United States and abroad.
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“We reached an agreement in principle on all spending and all offsets,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the Republican chief negotiator, told reporters, using Washington slang for austerity. “It’s fully compensated by offsets.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., and others were more cautious.
“We are nearing a final agreement that would garner bipartisan support,” Schumer said in the Senate. He said lawmakers are still finalizing the elements and wording of the bill and are awaiting a cost estimate from the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Health Committee and another negotiator, said, “I hope so,” when asked about Romney’s assessment.
Once finalized, an agreement would represent some semblance of bipartisan cooperation in fighting the pandemic, which unraveled a year ago when a far larger $1.9 trillion measure proposed by the new president left Congress only approved with democratic votes. This bill was laden with spending to help struggling families, businesses and communities, while this one would be aimed solely at public health.
Many Republicans were ready to go along with the new spending but insisted on paying for it with unspent funds from previous bills passed by Congress to combat the pandemic.
Half of the new measure’s $10 billion would be used for treatments, said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who helped negotiate the agreement. He said top federal health officials would be given broad discretion to spend the rest, but it would include research and other steps to combat the disease that has killed some 975,000 Americans and millions around the world.
Romney and others said the cuts the two parties agreed to on the new law would not include the state support cuts that House Democrats opposed. He said some unused funds were being taken from another pandemic program that provides state and local governments with funds for grants to local businesses.
Blunt said the two sides also agreed on savings, including withdrawing unspent $2.2 billion to support entertainment venues closed during the pandemic and more than $2 billion remaining to support aerospace manufacturing To be available.
Romney said the $10 billion could include $1 billion for vaccines, treatments and other support for overseas countries. Blunt said that number appears unresolved. A third of the earlier $15.6 billion measure was to go overseas.
The lower number for supporting other countries met opposition in the House of Representatives, where some Democrats wanted to increase the number. Epidemiologists have cited the need to vaccinate more people around the world and reduce the virus’ chances of spawning new variants.
“It’s a problem,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters. “It’s a shame.”
Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director, said officials were “very hopeful” that an agreement would be reached and urged lawmakers to allocate funds to help other countries deal with the disease.
“We won’t be able to get out of this pandemic until we stop the spread and spread of new variants around the world,” Bedingfield said.
Leaders hope Congress can approve the bill before lawmakers go on spring break after next week.
Republicans have leverage in the 50-50 Democrat-controlled Senate because 60 votes are required to pass most major bills. Romney and Blunt both said they believed a completed package they described would attract significantly more than the 10 GOP votes required.
Since the pandemic began, Congress has authorized more than $5 trillion to help address the economic and public health crises it has caused. Only a small fraction of that went to public health programs like vaccines.
In an interview earlier Thursday with Punchbowl News, Republican Senate Chairman Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the measure’s price appeared to have dropped to $10 billion because Democrats didn’t agree to additional savings.
Minutes later, Schumer entered the Senate and didn’t mention numbers, but hinted that his size could be falling.
“I beg my fellow Republicans to join us,” Schumer said. “We want more than you, but we have to get something done. We have to do something.”
Asked if he thinks an agreement could be reached before lawmakers break, McConnell said: “We’ll see. I hope.”
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.
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