If a new coronavirus variant surges in the United States this year—perhaps the one currently tearing through Europe—there’s a reasonable chance that the country will be unprepared to fight it. You can thank Congress for that.
Last week, lawmakers passed a massive spending bill without any additional funding for COVID-19 relief, despite White House pleas for more. Democrats would like to fulfill the administration’s request. But Republicans have taken the position that Congress has already done enough. “We don’t need COVID funding,” GOP Representative Randy Feenstra of Iowa told me. “Most people would say we’re done. We have more issues with inflation than COVID right now.”
Politically, Republicans feel safe making this argument. New cases of COVID have been decreasing for weeks, and hospitalizations are on the decline too. Most cities that had mask mandates have gotten rid of them. Many Americans tell pollsters that they’re ready for the country to move on; people are focused on other issues, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and rising gas prices. But more than 1,000 people are still dying every day from COVID. Experts predict that the new BA.2 subvariant could be the dominant strain in the United States in a matter of weeks.
In other words, refusing to approve new funding is a risk. “People want us to be prepared in advance and stabilized,” the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told me. “Republicans are voting against both.” If COVID gets much worse over the next few months, Democrats will rush to blame the GOP, especially if Republican members strike down a stand-alone vote on COVID relief. “They’re forcing a situation that’s going to make it worse for them” in November, Lake said. Of course, by election season, a spring debate over COVID funding will be a distant memory. If a new variant has overwhelmed the country by then, the partisan discourse will probably center on mask mandates and vaccines instead. Perhaps Republicans are right to bet that voters won’t punish them for blocking new funding.
Republicans were skeptical about approving more money to combat the virus; they’d suggested that the government simply repurpose any funds that states hadn’t yet spent (but may have already earmarked). After many Democrats balked at this idea, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stripped COVID aid from the funding bill entirely, hoping to deal with it separately later. Democrats may soon try to pass COVID relief as a stand-alone bill, but the chances of getting it through the tied-up Senate are slim.
The White House is now warning that as soon as next week, the government will have to cut shipments of monoclonal-antibody treatments by a third, as my colleague Ed Yong wrote earlier this week. By next month, it won’t be able to reimburse health-care providers for treating uninsured Americans with COVID. By the summer, it’ll have to cut funds for test manufacturers. Perhaps most crucially, it’ll scale back global vaccination efforts that would help keep new variants from emerging.
Democrats want to answer the White House’s call, though they’re divided on how to do it. Some members are a bit more closely aligned with Republicans, and would prefer to take an accounting of current COVID funds and redirect them to fulfill the White House’s needs. “There is a lot of money sloshing around,” Representative Elissa Slotkin of Michigan told me. “People understand the desire to sweep unspent funds; I just want that conversation to be fair.” Others, mainly progressives, support new spending, and even authorizing emergency funds for COVID relief. “We just put enormous amounts of money into defense spending” for Ukraine, Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told me. “We’re literally asking for very little money here to deal with this global pandemic.”
Republicans, on the whole, believe that Congress has already spent enough money combatting COVID in the past two years. “Everybody obviously is tired of all this, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way,” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told me. “The administration’s requests are legitimate, but we have the money; we don’t need to go deeper into debt.” Using up resources that have already been allocated is more important, GOP members argue. When I asked Representative Ron Estes of Kansas whether the possibility of a surge in cases due to a new variant would change Republicans’ views on funding, he told me that it’s “one of those things that we’ll have to see how it plays forward.” Estes also suggested that more Americans have natural immunity now, after so many contracted the most recent Omicron variant.
To pass COVID relief on its own, rather than tucked into some larger package, Democrats would likely have to pair any new funding with spending cuts elsewhere to get it through both chambers of Congress. “All epidemics trigger the same dispiriting cycle,” Yong wrote earlier this week. “First, panic: As new pathogens emerge, governments throw money, resources, and attention at the threat. Then, neglect: Once the danger dwindles, budgets shrink and memories fade.”
In Washington, D.C., the easiest thing to do is nothing. If lawmakers fail to pass any more money for testing or research or monoclonal-antibody treatments before another variant is raging through the United States, their neglect won’t be a surprise. But their panic might come too late.