Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) announced the deal on Monday afternoon, with Schumer lamenting that what was once supposed to be $5 billion in global vaccine aid is now a goose egg. Romney said he was “willing to explore a fiscally responsible solution to support global efforts in the weeks ahead” in the coming days.
“While this emergency injection of additional funding is absolutely necessary, it is well short of what is truly needed to keep us safe,” Schumer said. “Nonetheless, President [Joe] Biden supports this package and has asked the Senate and House to act quickly.”
The deal is a culmination of nearly a month of congressional handwringing over sending the Biden administration funds to keep fighting the pandemic. House Democrats scrapped a $15.6 billion tranche of money last month, after complaints from members about using money that Congress had previously allocated to their home states. That eventually led to the up-and-down Senate negotiations over the past week.
Schumer is focused on the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court this week, but with agreement among all 100 senators the chamber could quickly pass the coronavirus aid package and send it to the House.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Schumer pressed negotiators to include $1 billion in global vaccine aid after lawmakers shaved down the package last week from $15.6 billion to $10 billion, completely leaving out what had been $5 billion in global Covid aid.
Negotiators were unable to agree on how to pay for the international money, the sources said. Coons, Schumer, Romney and Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) were the lead negotiators.
A Democrat involved in the negotiations chalked up the failed effort to add back the international money to disagreement among Republicans. That person said over the weekend some Republicans discussed trying to reverse President Joe Biden’s decision to end the use of Title 42, a provision that allowed the administration to limit immigration during the pandemic. Eventually, the group dropped the contentious international money discussions so that it could release a unified statement supporting the bill on Monday.
If the Senate acts quickly, Democrats in the House will be under intense pressure to send the aid package to Biden’s desk by this week. Both chambers have just a handful of days before leaving for a two-week recess.
But Coons and multiple Democrats in the lower chamber are outraged that billions of dollars for global vaccine efforts will be excluded. Several have publicly threatened to oppose the package without that international funding component — something they say Biden and other officials have long promised.
“We’re faced with a complete shutdown of international effort,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), one of those Democrats who said he can’t support a package without the global aid. “We’re the United States of America. We’re supposed to be funding at least 25 percent of global effort. That’s just our fair share.”
House Democratic leaders, however, acknowledged that they would have little choice but to pass whatever can get through the Senate, after a previous deal collapsed in their chamber last month.
“If that’s all the Senate can do right now — which I regret deeply — I think we need to pass that and we need to pass it as soon as possible,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Monday night.
Asked if he could get the votes in the House, Hoyer said: “I think ultimately the answer to that is yes.”
The drop of the global Covid funding comes at a time when Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in Europe, Hong Kong and China and as top Biden officials scramble to prepare for a similar surge this spring.
Without additional funding, USAID will not be able to help vaccinate millions of people in low-income countries, including those in Africa. USAID is the main agency helping facilitate vaccinations across the globe, partnering with COVAX, the global vaccine facility, and host governments.
“Right now, as we proceed in our pandemic, our worst variants of concern are arising out of unvaccinated populations in low- and middle-income countries. The only way we are going to stop them from coming to the U.S. is to be vaccinating low- and middle-income countries,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “The reality is if you want to get big global projects done it always falls to the U.S. to take the lead, and it doesn’t look like it’s happening now.”
Congress may come back to the issue of fighting the pandemic on a global scale later this year, according to two people familiar with ongoing talks. Congress could take up a broader international aid bill this spring or summer.