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Senate negotiators reach 'agreement in principle' on slimmer Covid aid package

The proposed funding level is now $10 billion, down from the $15 billion range discussed earlier this week.
Image: The U.S. Capitol is pictured ahead of a storm, on Capitol Hill in Washington
Tom Brenner / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators said Thursday they have “reached an agreement in principle” on a Covid relief package they think will garner enough Republican support to make it through the Senate.

The $10 billion funding proposal, which follows days of intense talks, is about $5 billion less than what was being discussed earlier this week. The eventual legislation is expected to draw from previously allocated Covid aid, meaning it wouldn't consist of new spending.

“We’ve reached an agreement in principle on all the spending and all of the offsets,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the lead negotiator for the GOP, told reporters after huddling on the Senate floor with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s entirely balanced by offsets, but we just haven’t got it drafted up yet.”

The full details haven't been released. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said that half of the package would be designated for therapeutics and that the other half would include “a lot of discretion in broad categories” for the secretary of health and human services, including research.

Romney, Blunt and Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said they believed more than 10 GOP senators would vote for the proposal. A few days ago, Romney said he hadn't yet secured the support of nine other Republican senators who will be needed to clear the 60-vote threshold for legislation in the Senate, assuming all 50 Democratic-voting senators back the slimmed-down measure.

Schumer said Thursday he would postpone a previously scheduled vote to allow more time to finalize details.

“As a sign of good faith and to encourage us to come to a final agreement, I will reschedule today’s procedural vote to a later time,” he said on the Senate floor. “Now, when it comes to replenishing Covid response funding, we simply cannot afford to kick the can down the road. We need more money right away so we have enough vaccines and testing and lifesaving therapeutics. We want our communities to go back to normal and stay normal."

The tentative agreement comes amid a scramble to reach a deal before senators leave town for a two-week break at the end of next week.

The White House initially requested $22.5 billion for Covid aid as part of a $1.5 trillion government spending bill that was passed this month. But the coronavirus funding was stripped out to ensure the legislation, which included emergency aid to Ukraine, got enough Republican votes to get across the finish line. Democrats were furious when the Covid funds were removed.

“We can't wait until we find ourselves in the midst of another surge to act. It’ll be too late,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday. "There's no wall you can build high enough to keep out a virus."

Biden had also pressed lawmakers to include international relief funding to support efforts for global vaccinations. The tentative deal might include some of that aid, Romney said Thursday, but it's "uncertain as to whether there’ll be a billion of global money or not."

Romney said the new proposal would draw from previously allocated Covid funds, but it wasn't clear exactly which programs would have their funds diverted. Lawmakers have said they wouldn’t be taken from money set aside for state and local governments.

Some GOP senators said Thursday they needed more information before they committed their support to the recent agreement.

“I don’t want to say," Sen. Kevin Cramer R-N.D., told NBC News. "If it’s paid for, it’s better than if it’s not paid for. I think if it’s not paid for, it’s a non-starter."

CORRECTION (March 31, 2022, 5:56 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misattributed the last quote in the story. It was from Sen. Kevin Cramer, not Sen. John Kennedy.