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The U.S. Senate was up late Thursday night and into Friday morning working on COVID-19 relief. The result? “Senate Passes Budget Resolution; Vice President Harris’ Breaks Tie,” read a headline from NPR.
That sounds pretty close to final, doesn’t it? As if President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package is almost out the door to families and communities across the country? Not so fast.
Passing a budget resolution may sound conclusive, but this is just an early step in a process known as budget reconciliation. Senate and House committees will now write the actual legislation before it comes back to the floor. The final relief package could take until mid March to reach Biden’s desk, and even that’s not a sure thing.
Democrats have made the decision to push forward with reconciliation, which allows them to avoid a Senate filibuster and potentially pass the relief without any Republican support. They say the federal government needs to “go big,” and that the American people can’t afford half-measures in the midst of an ongoing COVID-19 crisis. They’ve largely panned a $618 billion proposal from a group of 10 Republican senators, led by Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins.
But going big shouldn’t mean going unnecessarily slow on issues where there is already widespread bipartisan agreement, like more funding for vaccines.
Maine’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Jared Golden has been a notable and reasonable holdout in the Democrats’ reconciliation push, making the argument that vaccination funding should be passed first rather than getting caught up in a potentially lengthy reconciliation process. He was one of only two House Democrats to oppose a procedural reconciliation vote on Wednesday, and the only Democrat to vote against the budget resolution on Friday.
“Congress should vote on and pass the vaccine funding requested by the Biden Administration immediately. Instead, the budget reconciliation process chosen by congressional leaders will be a weeks- or even months-long process,” Golden said in a Wednesday statement. “Any delay in ramping up vaccinations should be unacceptable to a president who seeks to prove that his administration can effectively govern the nation through this crisis, and it should be morally unacceptable to members of Congress whose constituents remain at risk each day.”
As Golden’s office has pointed out, both Biden’s relief package and the Republican proposal include $20 billion for a national vaccine program. Additionally, both of these proposals include the same total amount, $160 billion, for things like vaccines, testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and other public health resources, although they differ in details.
Democratic leadership says it’s time to go big and to move fast. Maybe we’re missing something, but when it comes to funding for priorities like vaccines and testing, we have a hard time understanding how waiting to pass $160 billion in March would be going bigger or faster than passing $160 billion now.
“If vaccine funding were given a vote today, it would pass with resounding support and could be on the president’s desk by the end of the day,” Golden said Wednesday. “Why wait? Are leaders holding vaccine funding hostage now out of fear they won’t otherwise have the votes for reconciliation? Whatever their reasoning, I will not support this week’s procedural votes to begin the budget reconciliation process unless the vaccine funds are fast-tracked.”
After coming together to pass an unprecedented $2.2 trillion in the CARES Act last March, Congress failed for months to follow up with much needed additional help. We’ve been clear about the role Republicans played in dragging that along. But at a certain point, rather than waiting on leadership, it fell to mostly centrist lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to focus on the areas of agreement and set the stage for December’s $908 billion compromise.
The lesson we take from this isn’t to go it alone when you can. It’s to do what you can, when you can, to help as many people as you can. That should be a rule in responsible governing, not an exception.
Encouragingly, it looks like Golden’s call for more immediate vaccine action is becoming less of an exception. The 56-member House Problem Solvers Caucus, made up equally of Democrats (including Golden) and Republicans, is now calling for an immediate $160 billion package to ramp up vaccinations, testing and some of those other widely agreed upon public health needs.
More lawmakers should join this push, and leadership should listen. And they should do so without delay.
Moving quickly and solely with reconciliation could very well prove to be a hurry up and wait kind of situation for issues where there is already strong bipartisan agreement. And in the case of vaccines specifically, it doesn’t look like that delay would result in additional funding. This should be unacceptable to anyone who wants to get as much aid out to the American people as they can, as fast as they can.