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Senators close in on $10 billion COVID relief deal

(WASHINGTON) — Top Senate negotiators have said they are close to striking a deal to approve $10 billion in additional COVID relief funding with just a handful of days remaining before Congress heads off for a two-week recess.

The Senate is expected to consider the legislation as soon as next week.

The renewed effort to pass additional funding to address the coronavirus pandemic comes after negotiators were forced to strip $15.6 billion in aid from a government spending package earlier in March over disagreements about how the bill would be paid for.

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

Romney said the $10 billion package would be “entirely balanced by offsets.”

The bill, however, would likely contain less than the $5 billion Democrats have lobbied to go toward the global vaccination effort, Romney cautioned. He said the bill would also still need to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office before Republicans get on board.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday implored Congress to act switfly.

“Congress, please act. You have to act immediately. The consequences of inaction are severe. They’ll only grow with time. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We have proven what we can do when we work together. So I urge Democrats and Republicans to get this done with urgency,” Biden said from the White House Wednesday.

On the Senate floor, Schumer touted the bipartisan work the Senate has undertaken in recent days to approve the additional funding.

“The gap has been narrowed greatly and we are intent on working with Republicans to cross the finish line because this is vital for our country if, God forbid, a new variant arises in the future, and that’s all too likely. We would like considerably more money than our Republican colleagues, but we need to reach 60 votes to get something passed through the Senate and so we are going to push as hard as we can,” Schumer said in a floor speech Thursday.

“We will keep working to arrive at a deal in good faith, and we hope our Republican colleagues ultimately join us in supporting a robust enough package to deal with this problem,” he added. “As I said, we’re making good progress. We’re getting closer and closer, but the sooner we get this deal done, the better for the country.”

Republicans have insisted for months that any additional COVID relief funding would have to come out of unused pandemic relief money that Congress approved back in 2020 and 2021.

The $10 billion top line number is significantly less than the more than $22 billion the Biden administration initially requested and less than the $15.6 billion Congress was on the cusp of approving earlier in March.

At the time, House Democrats revolted over a proposal from Republicans that parts of the bill would be paid for by funds meant for local and state governments.

Republican senators have said the new aid package would not be offset from these funds, so Democrats are expected to swallow the smaller price tag, though there are already concerns from some members over the lack of funding for international health efforts.

Earlier Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi slammed Republicans for whittling down the relief aid.

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

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

“This is shameful. We have to get the money. It’s not going to last us past probably June 1. So, for them to just, I mean, they’re making statements saying this is not, we don’t see this as a problem. It’s a problem. It’s a shame,” Pelosi said.

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

Blunt said that among the ways the bill is expected to be paid for is by clawing back $2.2 billion appropriated for shuttered performing arts venues, including “zoos and theaters.” The bill would also reprogram more than $2 billion originally intended for aviation manufacturing.

As of Thursday, no legislative text had been written.

“The agreement’s not done yet,” said Sen Richard Burr, R-N.C., a key negotiator, adding that negotiators are still finalizing details.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, when asked if there was a deal, responded: “We’re working on it. We’ll get there.”

Multiple Republican senators have said they are optimistic the deal will get the necessary Republican support to meet the necessary 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

But time is of the essence.

The Senate will spend a majority of next week’s floor time on the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is expected to be confirmed as the first Black woman justice in the nation’s history.

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