Bargainers: Bipartisan deal near on trimmed $10B COVID bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers on the verge of joining hands on a scaled-back bipartisan agreement Thursday provided a new $10 billion to combat COVID-19, a deal that will last Congress next week. can establish approval.

The price tag was down from a $15.6 billion agreement between the two sides weeks ago after House Democrats refused to cut unused pandemic aid to help states pay for it. President Joe Biden requested $22.5 billion in early March. With leaders hoping to move the package through Congress quickly, the low cost reflects both sides’ calculations that it will be too hard to agree on additional savings too soon.

The effort, which will fund steps like vaccines, treatments and trials, comes as Biden and other democrats warned that the government is running out of money To combat the pandemic. At the same time, the more permeable Omicron version BA.2 is spreading rapidly in the US and abroad.

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“We’ve reached an agreement in principle on all expenses and all offsets,” Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the leading Republican bargainer, told reporters, using Washington-speak for savings. “It’s perfectly balanced by the offset.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.N.Y., and others were more observant.

“We are approaching a final agreement that will garner bipartisan support,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. He said lawmakers are still finalizing the bill’s components and language, and are waiting for cost estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman of the Senate Health Committee and another bargainer, said when asked about Romney’s assessment, “I’m hoping.”

Once achieved, a deal would represent a glimmer of bipartisan cooperation in fighting the pandemic that broke out a year ago, when a $1.9 trillion measure proposed by the new president approved Congress with only Democratic votes. That bill was filled with spending to help struggling families, businesses and communities, while it would be aimed specifically at public health.

Many Republicans have been willing to go through with the new spending but have insisted on paying for them with unspent money from previous bills Congress enacted to address the pandemic.

R-Mo Sen. Roy Blunt, who helped negotiate the agreement, said half of the new measure’s $10 billion would be used for treatment. He said top federal health officials would be given broad discretion over spending the rest, but it would involve research and other steps to fight the disease, which has killed nearly 975,000 Americans and millions of people worldwide.

Romney and others said the savings the two parties had agreed upon for the new bill would not include cuts in state aid that House Democrats opposed. He said some unused money would be taken from another pandemic program that funds state and local governments for grants to local businesses.

Blunt said the two sides also agreed to save, including withdrawing $2.2 billion to help entertainment venues closed during the pandemic and more than $2 billion still available to aid aviation construction .

Romney said the $10 billion could include $1 billion for vaccines, treatments and other aid for countries overseas. Blunt said the figure seemed unresolved. A third of the earlier $15.6 billion was earmarked for going abroad.

The reduced figure to aid other countries faced opposition in the House, where some Democrats wanted to promote the figure. Epidemiologists have cited the need to vaccinate more people around the world and reduce opportunities for the virus to ward off new forms.

“It’s a problem,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters. “it’s embarrassing.”

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said officials were “very hopeful” that an agreement would be reached and prompted lawmakers to include money to help other countries combat the disease.

“Unless we stop the spread and spread of new variants globally, we will not be able to put this pandemic behind us,” Bedingfield said.

Leaders expect Congress to approve the law before lawmakers leave for spring break after next week.

Republicans have the advantage in the Democratic-controlled, 50-50 Senate because most major bills require 60 votes to pass. Both Romney and Blunt said they believe the final package they describe will attract significantly more than 10 GOP votes.

Since the pandemic began, Congress has approved more than $5 trillion to address the economic and health crises it caused. Only a small fraction of this is for public health programs such as vaccines.

In an interview Thursday with Punchbowl News, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. said the price tag of the measure had dropped to $10 billion because Democrats did not agree to additional savings.

Minutes later, Schumer went to the Senate floor and gave no figures but suggested that its size may have fallen.

“I’m requesting my Republican allies, join us,” Schumer said. “We want more than you, but we have to do something. We have to do something.”

Asked if he thinks a deal can be reached before lawmakers leave, McConnell said: “We’ll see. There’s hope.”

Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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