White House and Congress spar over COVID-19 funding

Lawmakers joined President Biden at the White House Tuesday to celebrate the signing of a $1.5 trillion government funding bill that will provide money for an array of items, most notably the military and aid to Ukraine. But despite this victory the White House is upset by the loss of major COVID money. Amna Nawaz joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the details.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lawmakers joined President Biden at the White House today to celebrate the signing of a $1.5 trillion government funding bill. The measure provides money for an array of items, most notably, the military and aid to Ukraine.

    But despite this victory, the White House is upset that the $22.5 billion in COVID funding that it requested was ultimately not included in bill.

    For more on what this all means, I'm joined by our chief correspondent Amna Nawaz, who is at the White House.

    So, hello, Amna.

    You have been following this, I know. The White House clearly upset. What's at stake here if this COVID money isn't passed somehow, some way soon?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, in a call earlier today, White House officials laid out their top concerns about that lack of COVID funding.

    The top line is this. They say, without those additional monies, basically 14 months of capacity-building, when it comes to the COVID response could wither and disappear, and the U.S. will be less prepared for whatever comes next in this pandemic.

    Now, they did lay out some of their top concerns. And they include these three items. That is testing vaccines, which include those booster shots, and also treatments, like the monoclonal antibody treatment. Now, specifically on each of these, they say, look, under testing, the U.S. has now had the capacity for hundreds of millions of tests a month without additional funding, they say.

    After June, they won't be able to maintain domestic manufacturing capability. On the treatment front, when it comes to those monoclonal antibody treatments, they say they have already shipped seven million courses so far. They say they have a new purchase order to go into place next week. Without additional monies, they won't be able to make that purchase order. And they say the existing supply will run out by late May.

    Also worth noting on the vaccine front, remember, when we began the pandemic and first had vaccines, there was a two-shot dose regimen, right? That's now been boosted to three, to include the booster shots, and that fourth shot now for immunocompromised Americans and now for older Americans as well. We know that recommendation or requirement could broaden to include many more Americans for a fourth shot.

    And now the White House says they won't have money for that fourth shot without additional funding. Now, immediately, Judy, they say the funding specifically for uninsured Americans, who have been getting access through these funds to testing and to treatment and to vaccines, that money, Judy, runs out this month.

    They also say, when it comes to the global vaccine effort, all of that is hindered without additional money. And, Judy, as you know, until the pandemic is over everywhere, it won't be over here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I do have a question, Amna.

    We know Congress has passed several COVID relief packages that the administration wanted. What was the holdup this time?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Judy, as you know, Congress has absolutely passed hundreds of billions of dollars and appropriated all that money for COVID response in the past.

    White House officials, both earlier today on the call and Jen Psaki in the briefing today, noted that's been done on a bipartisan basis. And they cited that as precedent, saying that is — it has been done, it can be done, and it should be done.

    But this time around, it's been widely reported and also White House officials were asked about this on the call, there was some frustration among lawmakers, Democrats in particular, about not being brought into consultation by the White House early enough and then having a massive $22.5 billion request come relatively late in a big negotiation process for a massive omnibus spending bill.

    Top that off with concerns about bringing Republicans on board for additional funds, and then additional frustration among dozens of lawmakers over state cuts to aid that were also included in this bill, all of that piled on top of each other, and, eventually, lawmakers said, forget it.

    Speaker Pelosi made the decision to pull the COVID funding from the bill. She sent a letter notifying her colleagues of that last Wednesday. Today, White House officials asked about that, took great pains to lay out the lines of communication with Congress.

    They said, in January, we notified Congress, we could need additional funds. In February, we briefed appropriators on what was at stake. President Biden even mentioned it in the State of the Union. But you saw today, of course, President Biden hailing the spending measures today, no mention of the COVID response funds, because they didn't make it into the bill — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, finally, Amna, I mean, given all this, what is the White House path forward? What do they see as the way they can get this done with Congress in weeks to come?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, we asked White House official about it earlier. Jen Psaki was asked about it today.

    They're very clear it's up to Congress how to move forward, whether it's with a stand-alone bill or through a reconciliation package. They believe there are many avenues forward. Their line is clear, though. They say, we need those funds now.

    The bigger picture, Judy, though, is this. When you look at where we are in the pandemic, yes, cases are dropping precipitously. We are down 95 percent from the Omicron peak. But White House officials, health experts, they're all watching what's happening overseas. They are seeing that rise in cases. They are worried and trying to anticipate what could happen next in the United States, whether it's a surge or a new variant.

    They're worried, without additional funds, the U.S. will not be prepared to face it. And so, of course, they want to prepare because this pandemic has already caught us off-guard several times in the last two years. And, Judy, it is not yet over.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, as you say, a lot at stake.

    Amna Nawaz, reporting tonight from the White House, thank you.

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