WASHINGTON — A group of moderate House Democrats is urging their leadership to strike a quick deal to fund vaccine development and distribution and leave the rest of President Joe Biden's sprawling Covid-19 relief plan for later.
"We believe a standalone vaccine bill would pass the House, obtain at least 60 votes in the Senate, and could be signed into law by President Biden this month," four leaders of the House's Blue Dog Coalition wrote in a letter sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer Thursday.
"It is hard for us to understand why our constituents and our states should have to wait until March or even April for us to deliver essential support for our nation’s vaccination efforts, if we have the votes to pass a standalone bill this month."
Biden's $1.9 trillion aid package, which includes $20 billion for vaccine distribution, still faces a difficult fight in the Senate despite Democratic efforts to move quickly to use procedural measures to circumvent the usual 60-vote threshold that would require them to get Republican support.
A group of 10 Senate Republicans made a $618 billion counteroffer, which also includes money to bolster vaccinations and testing.
"People are desperate to get access to the vaccine," Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., who signed the letter, said in an interview with NBC News Thursday. "This vaccine money can get out without having an impact on the reconciliation process, which also needs to move quickly."
Approving money sooner would help Biden accomplish his promise to deliver 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office, she added.
But the White House and congressional Democratic leaders appear unwilling to approve a smaller deal and want to push Biden's proposal through both chambers on the strength of Democratic votes alone. That process, the Blue Dogs worry, is not fast enough to keep up with a virus that is still spreading and adapting.
Democratic leaders say they hope to be able to wrap up this new round of relief by March 14, when more-generous unemployment insurance benefits are due to expire. But the process is complex and requires both chambers to move fluidly in concert with each other.
The White House has shown no appetite for breaking out portions of Biden's plan, and Pelosi and Schumer have been in lock step with Biden. Some Democrats fear that breaking it into two pieces — a regular bill for vaccine money and reconciliation for the rest — would rob the plan of some if its allure to lawmakers who are less thrilled about other components.
The letter, also signed by Blue Dog Reps. Tom O'Halleran of Arizona, Ed Case of Hawaii and Kurt Schrader of Oregon, does not make any threat to withhold support for an eventual reconciliation bill.
But Murphy said that it is "highly cynical" for anyone to slow-walk vaccine money on the basis that it "would affect their leverage" in reconciliation.