Size of COVID package could shrink to $10 billion as talks continue

WASHINGTON — The size of a bipartisan package to provide fresh spending to combat COVID-19 could shrink to $10 billion, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said today, and the chamber’s top Democrat also suggested its price tag could fall.

Negotiators have been trying for weeks to revive a $15.6 billion compromise they had agreed to earlier this month. That fell apart after House Democrats rejected cuts in pandemic aid to states to help pay for it, and the parties remain divided over how to find savings both sides can accept.

The new money would be to purchase vaccines, treatments and tests, which the administration says are running low, even as the more transmissible omicron variant BA.2 spreads quickly in the U.S. and abroad.

“It’s still kind of a work in progress, but as of late last night, it appeared as if that would be skinnying down from 15 to 10,” McConnell, R-Ky., said in an interview with Punchbowl News.

Minutes later, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor and suggested a similar outlook, though he mentioned no figures.

“I’m pleading with my Republican colleagues, join us,” said Schumer, D-N.Y. “We want more than you do, but we have to get something done. We have to get something done.”

Republicans have demanded that the measure be paid for by pulling back pandemic funds that were approved in earlier relief measures but not yet spent. Bargainers from both sides have said they remain divided over how to do that.

McConnell said that Democrats “are unwilling to find another $5 billion” in savings from around $100 billion that’s not yet been spent. Democrats have said the cuts Republicans are pushing are unreasonable, such as revisiting the already rejected reductions in state assistance.

Since the pandemic began, Congress has approved more than $5 trillion to address the economic and health crises it produced. Only a small fraction of that has been for public health programs like vaccines.

McConnell said reducing the bill’s size could mean the one-third of the measure that was to go for vaccines and treatments overseas would be dropped, “which I think is terribly unfortunate.”

Schumer said the two sides’ differences have been “narrowed greatly.” But he acknowledged the need to win GOP support in the 50-50 chamber, where 60 votes are needed to pass most major bills.

“We would like considerably more money than our Republican colleagues,” said Schumer. “But we need to reach 60 votes to get something passed through the Senate. And so we’re going to push as hard as we can.”

President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have said existing funds are running out and want a deal before Congress leaves town for a recess after next week.

Biden initially requested $22.5 billion for the effort.

Asked if he thought an agreement could be reached before lawmakers’ recess, McConnell said, “We’ll see. Hope so.”