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Senators agree on another round of emergency pandemic funding


U.S. senators say they have a deal to spend 10 billion more on COVID aid. That's on top of the nearly $6 trillion that was approved over the past two years to respond to the pandemic. Their new spending deal is far less than the Biden administration wanted, but it's what lawmakers from both parties would support. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has been watching the changes unfold and learning why some Democrats aren't happy.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Well, Biden had originally asked for more than double this amount. They had asked for $22.5 billion. And at first, they did get more from Congress. There was about $15 billion in COVID aid included in the annual spending bill Congress approved last month. But a group of House Democrats scuttled that money because they didn't like that it was paid for in part by redirecting funds away from their states. So that required lawmakers to start these negotiations all over again. And in order to get Republicans on board, they had to agree to have all of this new spending offset. And $10 billion is basically the most they could agree to right now.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So what is not getting funded in this package?

DAVIS: So this bill's is - this bill's focused on domestic needs. They dropped about $5 billion in international funding to combat the pandemic abroad - things like providing vaccines and the infrastructure to get them in arms distributed across other countries. This is a top concern for Republicans, as well. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed support for this funding. But they're in a bit of a timing pressure cooker. The White House wants this money fast, and they couldn't come up with the offsets for the international money. The White House supports this deal, but they made clear they still want that money. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer says they're going to try again later this spring to do an international aid package that could include pandemic funding. And he said they might try to tie it to additional funding for Ukraine, which could make it easier to get it through Congress.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So how is the 10 billion going to be spent?

DAVIS: So some of it's going to go to purchasing more vaccines, more booster shots and vaccines for kids. About half of this money is going to go to purchasing therapeutic drug treatments for the sick, to stockpile things like antiviral medications. There's also money in there to maintaining testing capacities, to minimize the risk of those testing shortfalls if there's another surge or when there's another surge in cases. The White House says without the money, there could be shortages in tests and treatment as soon as May or June. There's also about a billion dollars in it for new research and clinical trials for the possible development of vaccines for any emerging variants.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, House Democrats already scuttled one COVID deal. How likely is this one to get through quickly, as the White House has requested?

DAVIS: Well, there's urgency to try to get it done as early as this week because Congress is about to adjourn for a two-week break for Easter. At least four Republican senators - Mitt Romney, Roy Blunt, Richard Burr, Lindsey Graham - all helped cut this deal. So it seems pretty likely they're going to have the bipartisan support they need to get it through the Senate. Again, that $10 billion is entirely paid for by redirecting other COVID funds. So it's not going to cost taxpayers any more money, which makes it a lot easier of a sell to Republicans. The House was not a major player in cutting this deal, basically because they blew up the first one. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she will put this on the floor. I did speak to one senior House Democratic aide who said the attitude on that side of the Capitol was, you take what you can get and you live to fight another day for the rest.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Susan, thanks.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

MARTÍNEZ: And before we move on, we should mention that with the support of Republican Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson looks all but certain to make history as the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.