Comment: No reason Congress can’t push through covid spending

There are enough votes, but as usual politics on other issues — immigration, this time — have blocked passage.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

Congress still hasn’t approved supplemental funding for covid-19 vaccines, booster shots, treatments, tests and scientific work in a bill it’s been sitting on for months. Democrats have the tools to make it happen, but they aren’t using them, and I don’t understand why.

Republicans are filibustering against the bill in the Senate, holding the spending hostage in an attempt to get their way on an immigration matter;or at least trying to force Democrats to take tough votes on immigration.

Congressional Democrats tried to break the logjam by combining two must-pass measures, the pandemic funding and additional aid to Ukraine. Republicans support the Ukraine spending. But as it turned out, they were willing to block that, too.

That’s no surprise; presidents typically are more urgent about foreign policy than members of Congress, which means presidents can’t really use foreign aid requests to squeeze anything else out of Congress.

Perhaps it was worth a try, but President Biden hardly seemed enthusiastic about it in his comments to the press when he introduced the idea. Once it was clear that it wouldn’t work, Biden on Monday signaled that he had no objection to separating the items, and negotiators quickly reached a deal on the Ukraine aid.

That stranded the stalled coronavirus spending bill, although it appears that it may be finally moving forward. Which gets to the part that I don’t understand. The Democrats and Biden badly need that funding, for both policy and electoral reasons. There’s probably nothing more important for Biden’s approval ratings, and therefore for Democratic chances in 2022 and 2024, than putting the pandemic in the past as much as possible.

So how can the Democrats just leave this out there, unresolved, for so long? If they have to take a policy loss on immigration in order to get the funding, then how can it make sense to have it dragging on for months? If all they have to do is take tough votes to defeat Republican immigration measures, then get to it. A tough immigration vote to defend is not going to be nearly as damaging as vaccine shortages or other failures to manage the pandemic. If there’s a deal to be made, make it.

Or Democrats could choose to fight this one out. That’s a valid option, too. Biden could rip Republicans for blocking needed funding, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could bring the measure to the Senate floor and force a confrontation. Perhaps that would work, with Republicans backing down rather than risking a high-profile unpopular stance. Perhaps — more likely — it wouldn’t, with Republicans happy to argue over immigration and willing to be seen as obstructionists. But at least it would have some chance at working. Having that same fight, but keeping it low-key, never had any chance of success.

It’s not clear from the reporting whether the strategic muddle originates in the White House, Senate Democratic leadership or the Senate rank-and-file. But the stalemate has lasted far too long. Whoever was responsible for the flawed tactics, or lack of them, it’s time — it’s been time for a while — for the White House to step in and come up with a plan to get it done, and then keep on it until the bill passes.

In general, a lot of complaints about Congressional strategy are really just expressions of frustration from advocates, analysists and political actors when the votes for measures they favor simply aren’t there. It’s not Schumer’s fault or Biden’s fault that the Senate isn’t voting to codify abortion rights, for example. They don’t have the votes, and there’s nothing a president or a majority leader can do to force senators to flip votes on high-profile, high-intensity policy questions.

But there are plenty of votes available for pandemic funding. It’s almost certainly going to be approved, eventually. Unfortunately for Democrats, Republicans have enough leverage to win concessions or at least to force uncomfortable votes. Reacting to that by just letting it go for weeks, and even months? I’m not understanding that one.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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