Democrats need to break the COVID-funding stalemate. Now

by Jonathan Bernstein

Democrats should be pushing hard this week — not next week! — to break the logjam preventing full funding for pandemic prevention and treatment. There’s no excuse not to get it done.

Some policy decisions are difficult. Economists disagreed on the best size of last spring’s relief bill. I don’t think anyone has a good idea of what President Joe Biden could have done to prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In some cases, it’s hard to know what electoral effects a policy might have; there are often tradeoffs that are difficult to calculate. Sometimes, elected officials have to balance what they think are popular ideas with their impact on the nation. And then there are times when elected officials are stuck between intense demands of party actors who are lined up against public opinion among the bulk of voters.

Pandemic funding presents none of these problems. The need for vaccines, testing, treatment and more, all detailed by the White House some time ago, is obvious. This kind of spending is surely popular among most voters and among Democratic Party actors. There’s no long-term drawback; to the contrary, some of the spending the White House is requesting can be even more important in the long run than it is right now. And it is critical to Democratic hopes in 2022 and 2024. It’s impossible to prove that Biden’s approval slump was caused by the delta and omicron waves of COVID-19, and from the indirect effects of those setbacks on supply chains, job markets and inflation, but it’s almost certainly a major contributing factor.

Every possible consideration should be pushing Democrats to get this done. Right away. Indeed, there’s a good argument that they should be doing quite a bit more, especially for long-run challenges, but for now? The pandemic isn’t gone, and therefore the government response can’t be over. And every Democrat in Congress (and quite a few Republicans!) know it.

The stalemate in Congress that forced appropriators to drop coronavirus funding from the spending bill that passed earlier this month, has to do with how (and whether) to pay for the $15.6 billion that Congress was about to include. The answer is simple: Get it done.

Yes, Democrats may be angry that many Republicans in the House of Representatives won’t vote for spending bills even when those same Republicans think that much of that spending is essential. Yes, that’s irresponsible. They may also be upset that Senate Republicans filibuster everything, including urgently needed money to fight a pandemic. And surely a lot of Democrats are frustrated that many of their legislative priorities have stalled and that Republicans have opposed many of those priorities and are unwilling to compromise, even though they do appear willing to strike a deal on coronavirus funding.

Tough luck. Democrats are free to use those votes against Republicans (as they’ve done by attacking Republicans for voting against funding for Ukraine when they opposed the $1.5 trillion spending bill).

But how Republicans vote is beyond their control. Taking an available deal to get this money in place is within their control. Senate Republicans are reportedly using the filibuster to gain bargaining leverage, not to block funding. For better or worse, that’s fair play under the rules and norms of Congress.

Besides, Democrats with longer memories will recall that the filibuster and Republican irresponsibility gave Democrats considerable leverage during Donald Trump’s presidency, including during 2017-18 when Republicans had unified control.

There’s been little reporting on any progress toward cutting a deal. Perhaps everyone was waiting until now. Perhaps progress is happening away from the television cameras. Either way, time is running out.

Democrats need to know that if a new wave of virus shows up and the government doesn’t have enough tests, enough vaccines and enough treatments because of a Capitol Hill budget squabble, voters are going to blame the majority party and the president from that party. It should be the absolute No. 1 legislative priority for every Democrat until it gets done.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.