WASHINGTON — Prospects looked bleak Tuesday for congressional approval of billions of dollars in new emergency aid to fight COVID-19, and White House officials said they had already scaled back plans to purchase treatments and reimburse doctors who care for uninsured COVID patients because pandemic relief money has run out.
“We need to have this money,” Jeffrey Zients, President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, said Tuesday.
Neither side, though, seemed willing to bend. Zients said the administration was focused on securing emergency funding with “no offsets.” But Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said a spending bill would be a “much heavier lift” if the administration did not come up with some way to pay for it by repurposing existing funds.
Biden has been seeking $22.5 billion in COVID relief money for treatments, tests, vaccines and research; senior administration officials, speaking on a conference call with reporters, reiterated that request Tuesday. Congress slashed the amount to $15.6 billion and was poised to pass the measure as part of a broader spending package adopted last week.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi stripped the COVID money from the broader bill in response to pushback from governors and rank-and-file Democrats. Pelosi has discussed voting on a stand-alone bill this week but is unlikely to do so without assurance it will pass the Senate.
With coronavirus cases rising in parts of Europe and public health experts warning of the possibility of another variant or a summer or fall surge in the United States, the Biden administration is worried that without more money, it will be caught unprepared.
Biden’s coronavirus response strategy, outlined this month, included plans to secure more antiviral pills; to build up testing capacity; and to accelerate development of the next generation of vaccines, with the hope that one might protect against multiple variants. Without funding from Congress, officials warned, those plans are in jeopardy.
White House officials have repeatedly said they were out of money for vaccines, testing and treatment. On Tuesday’s call, administration officials, who declined to be identified by name, said the administration wanted to place new orders for monoclonal antibody treatments by the end of March but would not be able to do so without additional funding.