If the United States’ preparedness for anticipated Covid-19 surges this fall and winter was in question before, it’s even murkier now. President Joe Biden gave Congress the green light Monday to push forward with Ukraine aid “separately” from additional COVID response funding — a decision at least one top Democrat with purview over the nation’s purse string says he regrets. “We need both COVID and Ukraine,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy told Politico. “We’re going to have real problems this fall with COVID and it’s a mistake not to have both together. I really regret that.”
Public health officials in the White House have been warning for months that the U.S. is at risk of “backsliding” from the progress it has made to overcome the pandemic should Congress fail to provide more funding for vaccines, treatments, and testing. But Republicans have continued to stand in the way of the aid — first over questions about how additional funds were used and the package’s overall price tag and then over a political dispute over a pandemic-era immigration restrictions the Biden administration plans to terminate later this month. Democrats had tried to get around the impasse in April by pairing the proposed $10 billion in COVID funds with $33 billion in additional aid to help Ukraine bolster its defense against the Russian invasion, which officials fear could soon intensify further as Vladimir Putin grows more desperate. But Republicans refused to back down, and even some Democrats grew concerned that the loggerheads could result in dangerous delays in the Ukraine money. The White House blinked first.
“This aid has been critical to Ukraine’s success on the battlefield,” Biden said in a statement Monday. “We cannot allow our shipments of assistance to stop while we await further Congressional action.”
In many ways, the conclusion of this game of chicken was to be expected. After blocking a scaled-back COVID bill last month, Republicans explicitly warned against coupling the COVID and Ukraine requests, saying that they would not approve any additional pandemic funds unless Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allowed a vote on Title 42, the border policy the Trump administration invoked early in the coronavirus crisis to allow for the rapid expulsion of migrants apprehended at the border. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in April that it would terminate Title 42 by May 23, but Republicans — and a number of Democrats — have raised fierce objections over a potential surge at the border, and GOP senators have refused to go forward unless a James Lankford bill preventing the administration from lifting the rule is brought to the floor. “I don’t think until this Title 42 is resolved anything is going to go on with COVID,” Senator Roy Blunt, the fourth-ranking Republican in the chamber, said last month.
In declining to play hardball, Biden and the Democrats virtually guarantee that the nearly $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine — more than the White House had initially requested — will quickly pass, as the president called for. That’s the upside. The downside is, the fate of the COVID funds he described as “equally vital” is now murky. Republicans have already succeeded in winnowing down the proposal from $22.5 billion to $15.6 billion to a meager $10 billion, cutting out any funding for global efforts to address the pandemic. What other concessions could Republicans extract, now that the COVID relief has been decoupled from the Ukraine aid?
There have been some expressions of optimism on both sides of the aisle. Democrat Richard Blumenthal predicted to Politico that Republicans would “come to their senses and see a potential public health emergency for what it is and stop playing games with essential health care.” And Senate Minority Whip John Thune told CNN’s Manu Raju that the $10 billion could pass as soon as next week, contingent on a Title 42 vote. But there’s good reason to be wary, considering what’s happened to Democrats in the past when they agreed to pursue COVID relief separately: In March, they pulled a $15.6 billion proposal to combat coronavirus from an omnibus spending plan due to a lack of GOP support; two months later, they’re arguing over a $10 billion compromise that has been tangled up in an even more convoluted political squabble than the one that derailed the previous proposal. That doesn’t mean there won’t ultimately be an additional round of COVID aid. But Democrats may wind up making additional concessions before they get any approved. “I predict that we will not be able to complete this Congress without having a vote on Title 42,” Democratic Senator Brian Schatz told Politico. “And I predict we will have COVID aid.”
“Whether those things ended up being connected,” Schatz added, “I don’t know.”
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