Biden’s new COVID aid request raises spending questions among GOP lawmakers

A new Biden administration request for $30 billion in additional COVID-19 aid faces resistance from Republicans who question what happened to tens of billions of dollars dedicated to testing for the virus over the past year.

Spending figures from the administration obtained by The Washington Times show more than $10 billion designated for COVID-19 testing was used for other purposes, including expenses related to a surge in unaccompanied illegal immigrant children at the southern border, and newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan. 

The Trump Administration also repurposed COVID-19 testing funds, diverting billions to pay for the development of vaccines and therapeutics as well as other operational costs.

A new funding request from the Health and Human Services Department now seeks $30 billion in new aid to further mitigate the impact of COVID-19. It includes $4.9 billion for accelerated development of at-home COVID-19 tests and maintenance of community testing sites.

House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee say Biden officials have refused to provide them with a detailed breakdown of how the administration has spent a nearly $2 trillion COVID-19 aid package that Congress passed in March 2021. Republicans say the administration’s COVID-19 response team has not publicly testified before the panel in nearly a year.

“It appears that the Biden administration rerouted hundreds of millions of dollars away from COVID-19 testing to deal with President Biden’s border crisis,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the top Republican on the panel, told the Washington Times. “This is just one example of the mismanagement and misuse Republicans warned was possible when Democrats acted alone on a partisan $2 trillion spending bill that barely had anything to do with COVID-19. Now, the administration is requesting $30 billion more to spend. It’s unacceptable.”

Republican scrutiny of the government’s COVID-19 spending strategy follows a December-January surge in virus cases that led to a major shortage in rapid tests kits.

The omicron variant, which is now on the decline, was milder but spread easily. Rapid COVID-19 tests vanished from store shelves and became impossible to find while testing sites drew long lines. 

The administration responded by mailing millions of free rapid tests to more than 60 million households that have requested them so far, but critics say now that omicron is on the decline, they are arriving far too late.

Tests were in short supply this winter, despite significant government funding provided to develop and make COVID-19 tests more widely available.

According to a congressional source who provided data to The Washington Times, the Trump and Biden administrations combined have spent roughly $97 billion on COVID-19 testing and related activities since 2020, when Congress passed the first in a series of massive spending bills aimed at mitigating the impact of the virus and offsetting the economic fallout from the pandemic. A portion of the $97 billion in testing money was also dedicated to contact tracing.

More than $29 billion was provided to states to build and promote testing programs, as well as to fund contact tracing and mitigation efforts. Another $10 billion was delivered to the states to set up testing programs in schools, while $9 billion was dedicated to community testing sites. 

Another $5 billion paid for procurement of tests and supplies, and $4.5 billion was provided to buy and distribute 500 million tests.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who was among the Republicans who questioned how the Biden administration spent COVID-19 testing funding, told reporters at the Capitol that he is satisfied with how the money has been distributed.

“The money has been spent or committed to the purposes it was appropriated for,” Mr. Blunt said.

Mr. Blunt did not comment on the testing money diverted to the southern border and other non-testing purposes.

The Trump administration, for example, took $4.1 billion in COVID-19 testing money from the $484 billion Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act of 2020 and diverted it to the Operation Warp Speed program that was created by his administration to develop vaccines and therapeutics.

The Trump administration used an additional $4.1 billion in testing funds to pay for “immediate operation costs” not related to testing.

The Biden administration later dipped into a smaller portion of the COVID-19 aid funds designated for testing and used it to accommodate new Afghan refugees and the surge in illegal immigrants.

Biden officials diverted $1.2 billion that had been designated for testing activities through the Public Health Service agencies and used the funds for COVID-19-related expenses for unaccompanied children at the southern border.  

Biden officials took another $1.1 billion in designated testing funding to “backfill” the National Institutes of Health for COVID-19 spending that was moved to the program to aid unaccompanied illegal immigrant children.

Another $155 million in testing funds was rerouted to Operation Allies Welcome, a U.S. military operation aimed at bringing at-risk Afghan civilians to the U.S. following the military’s withdrawal in August.

The Biden administration has grappled with a significant influx of illegal immigrants along the southern border, many of them children traveling without relatives.

According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, nearly 147,000 unaccompanied children were picked up along the southern border in 2021 and nearly 48,000 have arrived in the U.S. in 2022.

The new $30 billion funding request will require negotiating in the House and Senate.

Democrats control both chambers, but on the House side, dozens of Democrats have called for at least $17 billion for a global vaccine program and may insist on adding it to the administration’s latest request.

In the Senate, Republicans have the power to block legislation through the filibuster, and many GOP lawmakers are opposed to new COVID spending.

Every Senate GOP lawmaker voted against Mr. Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law last March and provided $1.9 trillion in COVID-19-related aid.

Some Senate GOP lawmakers, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said any additional COVID-19 aid should come from funding provided over the past two years that has not yet been spent. Overall, Congress has passed more than $5 trillion in COVID-19 aid since the pandemic began in 2020.

Administration officials insist the new money is needed to stay ahead of new COVID-19 variants that could result in another surge.

“We have to look at it,” Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters when asked about the new request. “Where are we going to get the money?”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

Health, The New York Today

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