Senators finalize $10 billion COVID relief deal

Leading Senate negotiators have said they are close to reaching an agreement to authorize $10 billion in additional COVID relief funds, with just days left before Congress goes into a two-week hiatus.

The Senate is expected to consider the law as early as next week.

The renewed effort to provide additional funds to fight the coronavirus pandemic comes after negotiators were forced to cut $15.6 billion in aid from a government spending package in early March over disagreements over how the bill will be paid would become.

After days of bipartisan negotiations led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Mitt Romney, Romney told reporters Thursday that lawmakers had reached “an agreement in principle on all spending and all offsets.”

Romney said the $10 billion package will be “fully offset by offset payments.”

However, the bill would likely be less than the $5 billion Democrats have committed to the global vaccination effort, Romney warned. He said the bill also needs to be evaluated by the Congressional Budget Office before Republicans get on board.

At the Senate level, Schumer touted the bipartisan work the Senate has been doing over the past few days to approve the additional funding.

“The gap has been greatly reduced and we are committed to working with Republicans to cross the finish line because it is vitally important to our country if, God forbid, a new variant emerges in the future, and that is all too much probably. We want significantly more money than our Republican counterparts, but we need to get 60 votes to get anything through the Senate, so we’re going to be as tough as we can,” Schumer said in a speech Thursday.

“We will continue to work to reach an agreement in good faith, and we hope that our fellow Republicans will eventually join us in supporting a package robust enough to address this issue,” he added. “Like I said, we’re making good progress. We’re getting closer, but the sooner we close this deal, the better for the country.”

Republicans have insisted for months that any additional COVID relief funds must come from unused pandemic relief funds that Congress previously approved in 2020 and 2021.

The top-line figure of $10 billion is significantly less than the more than $22 billion originally requested by the Biden administration, and less than the $15.6 billion Congress short in early March prior to approval.

At the time, House Democrats resented a Republican proposal that portions of the bill be paid from funds earmarked for local and state governments.

Republican senators have said the new relief package would not be offset against those funds, so Democrats are expected to swallow the lower price tag, though some members have already raised concerns about a lack of funding for international health efforts.

Earlier Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slammed Republicans for cutting aid.

“I think what Republicans are doing is either they don’t care or they don’t know. But it’s wrong,” Pelosi told reporters during a news conference.

“We’re going to need even more money,” she added.

“It’s shameful. We have to get the money. It probably won’t get us past June 1st. So, so they just, I mean, they make statements that they don’t, we don’t see that as a problem. It is a problem. It’s a shame,” Pelosi said.

Half of the new funding will go to therapeutics, Republican Senator Roy Blunt, a key negotiator, told reporters Thursday. The other half would be distributed to the Department of Health and Human Services for “broad discretion” use over how it is spent on COVID-centric needs such as research.

Blunt said one of the ways the bill will be paid is by recovering $2.2 billion that has been set aside for closed performing arts venues, including “zoos and theaters.” The bill would also reprogram more than $2 billion originally earmarked for aircraft manufacturing.

As of Thursday, no legal text had been written.

“The agreement is ongoing,” said Sen Richard Burr, RN.C., a key negotiator, adding that negotiators are still finalizing details.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, when asked if there was a deal, said, “We’re working on it. We will make it.”

Several Republican senators have expressed optimism that the deal will garner the necessary Republican support to reach the required 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

But time is pressing.

The Senate will devote much of its speaking time next week to the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is expected to be confirmed as the first black judge in the country’s history.

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