Bargainers: Bipartisan deal near on $10B new COVID package

Alan Fram
Associated Press

Washington — Lawmakers seemed on the brink of clinching a bipartisan compromise Thursday to provide a fresh $10 billion to combat COVID-19, a deal that could set up final congressional approval next week.

The price tag was a reduction from an earlier $15.6 billion compromise that fell apart weeks ago after House Democrats rejected cuts in pandemic aid to states to help pay for it. With leaders hoping to move the package through Congress quickly, the lowered price tag seemed to reflect both parties concluding that finding additional savings soon would be too hard.

The new money would be to purchase vaccines, treatments and tests, which the administration says are running low, even as the more transmissible omicron variant BA.2 spreads quickly in the U.S. and abroad.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a lead Republican negotiator, said bargainers had reach an agreement in principle on a package but said it was still being drafted. Other senators were less definitive but none contested that a deal was near.

“We’ve reached an agreement in principle on all the spending and all of the offsets,” Washington-speak for savings, Romney told reporters. “It’s entirely balanced by offsets.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Senate health committee and another bargainer, said, “I'm hoping,” when asked about Romney's assessment.

Republicans have demanded that the measure be paid for by pulling back pandemic funds that were approved in earlier relief measures but not yet spent. Romney and others said savings the two parties had agreed to for the new bill would not include the cuts in state assistance that House Democrats had blocked.

Romney said the $10 billion might include $1 billion for vaccines, treatments and other support for countries overseas. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., another bargainer, said that figure seemed unresolved.

Earlier Thursday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the measure's price tag seemed to have fallen to $10 billion and the chamber's top Democrat also suggested its cost would fall.

“It's still kind of a work in progress, but as of late last night, it appeared as if that would be skinnying down from 15 to 10,” McConnell, R-Ky., said in an interview with Punchbowl News.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined at right by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., speaks with reporters about President Joe Biden's proposed $5.8 trillion budget, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, March 29, 2022.

Minutes later, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor and suggested a similar outlook, though he mentioned no figures.

“I’m pleading with my Republican colleagues, join us," said Schumer, D-N.Y. “We want more than you do, but we have to get something done. We have to get something done."

McConnell said that Democrats “are unwilling to find another $5 billion” in savings from around $100 billion that's not yet been spent. Democrats have said the cuts Republicans are pushing are unreasonable, such as revisiting the already rejected reductions in state assistance.

Since the pandemic began, Congress has approved more than $5 trillion to address the economic and health crises it produced. Only a small fraction of that has been for public health programs like vaccines.

McConnell said reducing the bill's size could mean the one-third of the measure that was to go for vaccines and treatments overseas would be dropped, “which I think is terribly unfortunate.”

Schumer said the two sides' differences have been “narrowed greatly." But he acknowledged the need to win GOP support in the 50-50 chamber, where 60 votes are needed to pass most major bills.

“We would like considerably more money than our Republican colleagues," said Schumer. “But we need to reach 60 votes to get something passed through the Senate. And so we’re going to push as hard as we can."

President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have said existing funds are running out and want a deal before Congress leaves town for a recess after next week.

Biden initially requested $22.5 billion for the effort.

Asked if he thought an agreement could be reached before lawmakers' recess, McConnell said, “We'll see. Hope so."