The House and Senate passed nearly identical fiscal year 2021 budget resolutions, a vehicle that could expedite consideration of the next COVID-19 legislation, along party lines on Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 respectively.
The budget resolution includes instructions giving committees of jurisdiction until Feb. 16 to draft a COVID-19 relief bill that would include up to $1.9 trillion in spending — the cost of President Joe Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” [see Washington Highlights, Jan. 15]. The resolution also allows for passage of the final legislation by reconciliation, which only requires a simple majority in the Senate for final approval.
The House passed H. Con. Res. 11 by a vote of 218-212. Senate passage of S. Con. Res. 5 by a vote of 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote, followed an hourslong consideration of 19 of the more than 800 filed amendments to the resolution, which is referred to as a “vote-a-rama.” Under Senate rules, members can offer as many amendments as they would like as long as the amendments are deemed budgetary in nature. Both chambers will need to approve the same budget measure, and the House is expected to consider the Senate-approved resolution on the evening of Feb. 5.
Though vote-a-rama amendments are generally considered messaging opportunities, two amendments related to COVID-19 mitigation were approved for inclusion in the final resolution. Amendment #546 from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) would allow for the strengthening of the Provider Relief Fund with an emphasis on additional support for rural providers, and amendment #716 from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) would support COVID-19 vaccine administration and a public awareness campaign.
Several amendments related to academic medicine were filed but not voted on, including:
- Prohibiting federal science grants to institutions of higher education that partner with entities from China (#147 from Sen. Deb Fischer [R-Neb.]).
- Increasing investments in COVID-19 research, supporting biomedical research through promoting public-private partnerships and reducing regulatory burden, and supporting increased investments in biomedical research (#208 and #209 from Sen. Richard Burr [R-N.C.], #262 from Sen. Jerry Moran [R-Kan.]).
- Ensuring equitable access in health care services, vaccine deliveries, and health care information (#856 from Sen. Jacky Rosen [D-Nev.]).
- Addressing the COVID-19 public health needs of Native American populations (#133 from Sen. John Hoeven [R-N.D.]).
- Creating one simplified income-driven repayment for federal student loan borrowers (#212 from Sen. Burr).
- Establishing a reserve fund to support nonprofit institutions of higher education, including historically Black colleges and universities (#24 from Sen. Bill Hagerty [R-Tenn.]).
- Prohibiting institutions of higher education that receive federal funds from raising tuition and fees for the 2021-2022 academic year (#404 from Sen. Rick Scott [R-Fla.]).
In advance of congressional activity to move forward on a budget resolution, a group of 10 Republican senators released a $618 billion COVID-19 relief proposal on Feb. 1 to counter President Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan.
The proposal release followed a Jan. 31 letter to President Biden, which expressed a desire to work with the president, stating that the senators “welcome the opportunity to work with you in a bipartisan manner to combat the COVID-19 virus and provide continued support to families struggling during the pandemic.”
Because of the vastly different price tags, the senators’ framework differs greatly from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which coupled COVID-19 relief with economic stimulus measures. However, a summary of the GOP proposal suggests at least some alignment on investments related to public health measures like vaccines and testing, including:
- $20 billion for the National Vaccine Program.
- $50 billion for coronavirus testing expansion.
- $30 billion for the Disaster Relief Fund.
The senators also provided funding recommendations for additional COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including:
- $5 billion for personal protective equipment for first responders, physicians, and dentists.
- $15 billion for the Strategic National Stockpile.
- $35 billion in new funding for the Provider Relief Fund, of which 20% must be reserved for rural hospitals. President Biden’s plan did not explicitly recommend additional investments in the Provider Relief Fund.
Republican senators met with President Biden on Feb. 1 to discuss their proposal but did not reach an agreement with the White House. President Biden subsequently convened Democratic leadership to discuss the possibility of producing a bipartisan COVID-19 relief package that would not require reconciliation.