Here's the scoop on what's happening this week in Congress
NCSD Policy Staff
March 4, 2022
Negotiations on the omnibus spending bill continue as lawmakers discuss supplemental spending bills as well as details on the twelve FY’22 appropriations bills. Some lawmakers are questioning whether the package can be wrapped up before March 11 when the current CR expires. Another short-term CR may be needed to complete negotiations.
Democrats and Republicans are committed to providing both defense and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but they differ on what should be included and what vehicle to use to pass the legislation. The President’s emergency funding request will include $10 billion – $4.8 billion would go to the Pentagon and $5 billion to the State Department, with the remainder going to the departments of Treasury, Commerce, Justice, and Energy. The administration is requesting:
$1.25 billion for cyber and intelligence support to accelerate capabilities and upgrade weapons systems;
$1.8 billion for the deployment of U.S. military units to assist the U.S. European Command and NATO response forces;
$1.75 billion to replenish weapons and material stocks to Ukraine; and
$500 million for military assistance to Ukraine and other NATO countries on the eastern flank to build weapon capacity and deter Russia.
The Administration is requesting an additional $22.5 billion for immediate new investments in testing, anti-viral treatments, and improved vaccines in anticipation of a possible new COVID-19 variant and the subsequent wave of infections. The funding request is designated as “emergency,” meaning it would be above and beyond regular agency funding levels. Senator Romney and three dozen Republican Senators sent a letter to the Biden Administration stating that they may be unwilling to approve new COVID-19 funding until they first learn how much money the U.S. government has already spent.
The White House is expected to release the FY’23 budget in the next week or two. No exact date has been announced.
Pandemic Preparedness Bill
Senator Murray, Chair of the Senate Health, Education and Pension Committee and Ranking Member of the Committee Senator Burr announced that the bipartisan pandemic preparedness bill will be marked up on March 15. The bill is intended to improve federal capacity to prevent and react to future pandemic threats, reform the CDC – including making the position of CDC director subject to Senate confirmation, and strengthen the role of the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response office. It is expected that the bill also will include language to authorize the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).
Dissatisfaction with the CDC
A survey of senior congressional staff conducted by Punchbowl News and the Locust Street Group found significant dissatisfaction with the performance of the CDC during the pandemic. Although the CDC has traditionally received solid bipartisan support from legislators, the poll reveals only 39 percent of Democratic staff say their boss has a positive opinion of the agency’s work on COVID-19, while 31 percent have a negative opinion, and 30 percent of Democratic respondents either did not know or did not have an opinion. The survey found that 95 percent of Republicans report negative views of the CDC’s handling of the pandemic over the past year.
Pandemic Preparedness Plan
This week, the White House released its 96-page National Covid-19 Preparedness Plan, arguing that the U.S. has made “strong progress” fighting the pandemic and now possesses an array of vaccines and therapeutics capable of mitigating deaths and severe illnesses. The plan contains strategies for preventing and treating COVID-19 cases, preparing for the emergence of new variants, guarding against economic disruption and school shutdowns, leading the worldwide vaccination effort, and laying out further improvements to the federal government’s pandemic response. The plan also proposes bolstering surveillance testing and data collection and accelerating the FDA’s review process for previously authorized vaccines that are modified to protect against new variants and adding coronavirus tests, antiviral pills, and masks to the Strategic National Stockpile. The plan can be found here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/covidplan/
CDC Updates COVID-19 Prevention Guidelines
On February 25, 2022, the CDC announced new COVID-19 prevention guidelines including relaxing mask use for communities where hospitals aren’t under high strain. Under the new guidance, nearly 70% of the U.S. population lives in an area considered to be a low or medium risk, and residents there are advised they can go indoors without masks. The CDC recommends continued mask use in communities where serious cases of COVID-19 are straining the health system. The move to ease up on masking reflects current conditions at this phase of the coronavirus pandemic, including widespread immunity through vaccination and prior infection as well as better access to testing and treatments. “We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing,” said CDC Director Walensky. But, she added, new risk guidelines that the agency is implementing will help people know when to reach for masks again if conditions warrant it. Health officials emphasized that people should still wear face coverings if they wish or if they are personally at high risk. And regardless of local conditions, they should mask if they have COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. CDC is also dropping its recommendation for universal school masking and instead will recommend masking only in communities at a high level of risk. The new guidelines can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html
A new omicron variant of COVID-19 is quickly picking up steam across the U.S. The new variant, known as BA. 2, is more contagious than previous variants, including the original omicron strain, BA. 1. It’s not expected to trigger another deadly surge. And it’s unlikely the new strain will slow Federal and State plans to ease some mitigation practices and return the country to a state of pre-pandemic normalcy.
Americans can order additional free at-home Covid-19 tests supplied by the US government starting next week. The tests can be ordered here: https://www.covidtests.gov or by calling 800-232-0233.
Other Legislation and Happenings Around the Nation
Women’s Health Protection Act
This week, Senate Republicans blocked a House-passed bill aimed at preserving access to abortion nationwide. The Senate blocked the measure on a nearly party-line vote, with Democratic Senator Manchin of West Virginia voting with Republicans in opposition. The vote was 46-48. The bill the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” was to protect a person’s ability to determine whether to continue or end a pregnancy and to protect a health care provider’s ability to provide abortion services. The House had passed the legislation in late September.
Florida Abortion Law
This week, Florida’s Republican-controlled Senate approved the strictest abortion ban in the state’s history, ending a fight over reproductive rights that pitted GOP lawmakers against Democrats and activists who fought against the legislation but were powerless to stop it. The bill, H.B. 5, bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a move that would severely restrict access to the procedure in a state that for decades has been a refuge for women from across the South. Governor DeSantis is expected to sign the bill which will put the ban in place beginning July 1.