WASHINGTON — The Republican senator who had led negotiations with the White House over new pandemic relief funding accused the Biden administration on Thursday of giving him “patently false” information when she said he didn’t. There was more money to buy more coronavirus vaccines and treatments, in a tense exchange that appeared to further reduce the chances of Congress approving new funds.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, told a heated Senate Health Committee hearing that he was stunned last week when White House officials announced they would be repurposing $10 billion. dollars in federal Covid-19 earmarked for virus testing and protective equipment and would instead spend the money on antiviral drugs and vaccines. That, he argued, meant the administration wasn’t strapped for coronavirus supplies after all — even though the White House has made it clear it will cut short certain types of supplies by redirecting funds to replenish others.
Administration officials have said for months that unless Congress authorizes new spending, they could not buy more pills and vaccines in anticipation of a possible fall surge. The White House has asked Congress for $22.5 billion in emergency aid; Mr. Romney helped broker a $10 billion compromise, which remains stalled.
“Washington operates on a relationship of trust between the respective parties, the administration and Congress,” Mr. Romney said. “The fact that the administration provided us with information that was blatantly false is something that significantly attacks that trust.”
Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary of health for emergency preparedness and response, testified that the administration had to make “significant compromises – compromises that none of us wanted to make” – in rerouting the 10 billion dollars.
She said the money came in part from the administration’s coronavirus testing program and the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency medical reserve, which she said would not be able to buy gowns. made in the country and “would struggle to be able to maintain” its current levels of protective equipment accordingly. Shortages of supplies were a major problem at the start of the pandemic, when many health workers became infected or died lack of protective equipment.
Mr. Romney’s comment reflected a larger political theme that Republicans are likely to raise in their midterm election campaigns: that the administration squandered Covid-19 relief dollars, a charge the House Blanche sought to refute. Jen Psaki, the former White House press secretary, brought a 385-page briefing book to the White House press room in April, which she said detailed what money was spent, when and for what.
“We also gave Congress a full account of every dollar spent,” Ms. Psaki said at the time.
Thursday’s session was the Senate Health Committee’s first hearing on the coronavirus response since January — a sign that interest in the pandemic is waning on Capitol Hill, as well as across the country. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, testified remotely from his home, where he is self-isolating after testing positive for the coronavirus. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Robert Califf, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, also testified.
Each of the witnesses pleaded for more money; Dr. Walensky, for example, said that without a new injection of funds, the CDC could not continue surveillance studies, including “comprehensive surveillance of post-Covid conditions” and studies of new mothers with Covid. , and how their illness affects their babies.
Republicans insisted that any new money be offset by cuts to other programs. Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the committee’s top Republican, closed the hearing with a scathing assessment, accusing Democrats and the White House of “trying to pressure Republicans into opening a checkbook, sign the check and let the administration fill in the balance without any details on how, when or what was requested.
“No one has worked harder on this issue, I think, on the Hill than I have,” continued Mr. Burr. “No one has gone for emergency money with no strings attached more than me. But there comes a time when my patience runs out.
Mr. Romney – the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 – looked more hurt than angry. He said he would not have “worked so hard” for “many weeks and intensive negotiations” had he known other funds were available.
“We should be made aware of what those trade-offs are, and have that discussion and help make that decision together,” he told Ms O’Connell. “You shouldn’t be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for compromises. We’re not going to tell you about it. ”