Congress stumbles on a Covid-19 aid package as vaccine approval passes a key hurdle

Congress stumbles on a Covid-19 aid package as vaccine approval passes a key hurdle

A key panel charged with evaluating the first coronavirus vaccine candidate in the US raced against the clock on Thursday in the quest to save American lives — a stark contrast with the dithering, excuses and appalling lack of action on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are struggling to strike a deal to send emergency pandemic relief to millions of Americans and are again kicking the can down the road with a one-week funding deal the Senate passed Friday afternoon, narrowly avoiding a midnight government shutdown.

But the country caught a glimpse of what efficiency and transparency look like during the marathon public hearing Thursday of the US Food and Drug Administration advisory panel, whose members were productive, competent and questioned experts directly without grandstanding.

For hours, the group sliced through the incredibly complex issues surrounding the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine — wrestling with ethical and medical questions about who should get the first doses and when — capping the day with their historic vote urging the FDA to authorize the vaccine for emergency use.

Members of Congress, meanwhile, notched yet another day with no deal on a desperately needed emergency stimulus package intended to help millions of unemployed Americans who are about to careen off a financial cliff when their benefits expire at the end of this month.

Many small business owners who have been decimated by Covid-19 restrictions — particularly those in the restaurant industry — say they need another round of relief to stay afloat. And a huge question looms about how much vaccine distribution could be slowed in the coming months by Congress’ failure to provide additional aid to state and local governments that are trying to assist providers, combat vaccine skepticism and get the vaccine where it needs to go in the remote corners of each state once it is delivered.

Reflecting the apparent lack of urgency and continued intransigence from the top, both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have shown little indication that they are willing to work together and help the bipartisan group of senators, who are trying to assemble a framework for a Covid-19 relief package.

McConnell’s aides have told top staff in both parties that the leader doesn’t see a way to resolve the disagreements over liability provisions in the emergency stimulus package or the requested Covid-19 aid for state and local governments, CNN’s Manu Raju reported Thursday. McConnell has said he would like negotiators to drop those two sticking points and pass a more limited package without them — but Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer say they cannot agree to a scaled-back package when it comes to aid.

When Pelosi was asked when she plans to start negotiating directly with McConnell, she replied during a press conference Thursday that it was important to follow “the normal regular order” and let the committees work out the details of a package before leadership gets involved: “We don’t negotiate the bill all along,” she said.

Shutdown narrowly averted — for now

The fact that the people’s representatives in Congress can’t figure out how to strike an agreement on aid to Americans on the brink in the middle of a deadly pandemic is mind-boggling enough.

But there were new signs of the utter dysfunction in Congress this week with a series of last-minute holdups to the short-term spending bill that threatened a government shutdown. The Senate ultimately passed the bill, which Trump signed Friday evening and will fund the government through December 18.

Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, was standing in the way of a vote on that essential legislation because of his opposition to a provision in a must-pass defense bill, which also passed the Senate Friday.Paul told CNN’s Manu Raju Friday morning he would let the stopgap bill pass. He explained his main point had been to delay the defense bill for a day.

But there were also objections to the short-term spending measure itself from different corners: a group of conservative senators wanted language to prevent future government shutdowns, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, was demanding the Senate vote on a provision to give Americans $1,200 stimulus checks.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota accused Sanders of “basically trying to hijack” the bill that would fund the government through next week “to get the vote he wants on stimulus checks.” While a shutdown likely would have been brief and have occurred over the weekend when many government operations are closed, it would have been a new low in what has already been an unbearable year.

Before the Senate voted on the continuing resolution to keep the government funded for one week, Sanders and GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri both made impassioned pleas for the chamber to take further action to provide pandemic relief ahead of the holidays.

Sanders said that he would withdraw an objection to the stopgap funding bill Friday to allow the government to remain open, but threatened that he would not do the same next week.

“I am not one of the members of the Senate who shuts down … does this and does that, keeps people here for the weekend. … I don’t do that. But this I want to say right now, I am prepared to withdraw my objection at this moment. But I will not be prepared to withdraw an objection next week,” Sanders said.

Sanders made no apologies for his position in an earlier statement, underscoring that “tens of millions of working-class Americans are facing economic devastation.”

“They have no income, they face eviction, they can’t afford to go to the doctor, and many are unable to adequately feed their kids,” he said in a statement to CNN. “Congress cannot adjourn for the holidays in order to return to our families when so many other families are living in desperation. It is absolutely imperative that we provide $1,200 for every working-class adult and $500 for each of their children.”

The Vermont senator noted that level of aid was included in the CARES package approved in March and said Congress should not go home until they address the current crisis.

And like Trump, some members of Congress appear to still be more focused on spreading disinformation about the November election than halting the spread of the coronavirus or delivering relief. More than 125 House Republicans signed on to an amicus brief to support an effort, begun by the Texas attorney general, to invalidate the election results in four battleground states that Trump lost to Biden — Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The President filed a motion on Wednesday to intervene, and 18 Republican attorneys general are are also backing the effort. At the President’s request, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said he would argue the case if the Supreme Court decides to hear it.

But even some Republicans from Texas were skeptical. One of them, Rep. Kay Granger, said she does not support the lawsuit and called it “a distraction.” Another, Sen. John Cornyn, told CNN he was struggling to “understand the legal theory of it.”

But other Republicans, like Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, have been more than happy to support the President’s baseless claims of voter fraud. Johnson intends to hold a hearing next week “examining irregularities in the 2020 election” before the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican, has argued that the hearing is inappropriate in the partisan halls of Congress and said he does not know if he will participate. “I don’t think we have the resources to do investigations, nor do we have the constitutional mandate to make judicial decisions,” Romney said Thursday. “The Justice Department does investigations. The courts do judiciary matters. … So, I don’t see the purpose of a hearing other than to stir up controversy.”

Worsening trends

The disconnection between Congress’ inability to compromise and the need for relief across the country was underlined this week by the horrifying hospitalization rates and rising death toll, trends that are expected to continue into the New Year.

A day before the FDA advisory panel voted to recommend emergency use authorization for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, there were a stunning 3,124 deaths — a single-day record since the pandemic began — as the virus continued to race unchecked through urban and rural communities across America.

Doctors and nurses are exhausted as hospitalizations surge and states try to recruit more health care workers to help administer the vaccine to everyday Americans next year. And rural and underserved communities are struggling with shortages in volunteer first responders like EMTs and firefighters who assist in getting patients to hospitals for care.

The coronavirus model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation now projects that another half-million Americans will have died from Covid-19 by April 1, a slight improvement from its prediction last week. (The model predicted that the vaccine rollout could save at least 25,000 lives).

In the midst of so much grim news, the fast-moving discussions to approve the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine were a rare glimmer of hope on Thursday.

The power now rests with the FDA to take the next big step by granting emergency use authorization for the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, which would allow the first doses to be shipped out across the country. The FDA and its advisory panel will repeat the same process next week when they consider the Moderna vaccine.

Before vaccines can actually be injected into Americans’ arms, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must agree to offer it to the American public based on the recommendation of one of their advisory panels. But that chain of events is expected to move quickly this weekend.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, called the FDA advisory panel’s move “a very important step” as the government tries to build trust in the vaccine.

“We want to make sure that we impress the American public that decisions that involve their health and safety are made outside of the realm of politics, outside of the realm of self-aggrandizement, and are made in essence by independent groups,” Fauci told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “Cuomo Prime Time” Thursday night.

President-elect Joe Biden called the FDA advisory committee’s decision “a bright light in a needlessly dark time,” offering his gratitude to the scientists and public health experts “who evaluated the safety and efficacy of this vaccine free from political influence.”

After weeks in which President Donald Trump needlessly delayed the transition between administrations while pursuing his failed court challenges to the election, Biden’s advisers finally met with Operation Warp Speed on Thursday and plan to do so again on Friday.

“Vaccines don’t equal vaccinations. Our challenge now is to scale up manufacturing and distribution,” Biden said in a statement, adding that he hopes to distribute 100 million shots in the first 100 days of his administration.

“We are putting together an experienced team to do just that,” the President-elect said. “Before I take office, we need the Trump Administration to purchase the doses it has negotiated with Pfizer and Moderna and to work swiftly to scale manufacturing for the U.S. population and the world. And, we will need Congress to fund our distribution efforts.”

About the Author

Angela Brown
Angela Brown is the author of our Business & Economy section.