The White House is pushing congressional Democrats to reverse course on a plan to shortchange President Joe Biden’s request for tens of billions of dollars in funding for the prevention of future pandemics.
Biden proposed spending $30 billion on pandemic preparedness and prevention as part of his American Families Plan earlier this year, but Senate Democrats’ outline of a massive health and social spending package they will negotiate in the coming months allocates under $10 billion toward preventing and preparing for future outbreaks, even as the coronavirus pandemic surges yet again.
The White House began pressuring members of Congress earlier this week to bump that $10 billion up to at least $15 billion in what it is billing as a down payment for a larger $65 billion plan to prepare the nation’s public health infrastructure, which has been underfunded for decades.
“It’s vital that we start with an initial outlay for $15 to $20 billion to jumpstart these efforts,” Eric Lander, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told reporters in a conference call on Friday.
The $65 billion White House pandemic preparedness plan would aim to ensure the rapid development — in 100 days or less — of vaccines against any future virus and also work to massively speed up production, guaranteeing enough vaccines to inoculate the United States within 130 days and the world within 200 days. It would also aim to boost the nation’s supply of personal protective equipment and create new early-warning systems to catch pandemics early on.
“As devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic is, there is a reasonable likelihood that another serious pandemic that may be worse than COVID-19 will occur soon — possibly within the next decade. Unless we make transformative investments in pandemic preparedness now, we will not be meaningfully prepared,” the document outlining the plan warns.
The request for more pandemic prevention funding could have major political and policy consequences as Democrats craft a budget package designed to pass on a party-line vote with their thin congressional majorities. The package is currently expected to cost $3.5 trillion over 10 years, paid for by a variety of tax hikes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, though moderate Democrats — including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — are seeking to shrink the plan.
But since the budget package is likely to be one of Democrats’ only chances to pass major legislation, the intra-party battles to secure funding for everything from subsidized child care to free community college could be fierce. The White House’s request for extra money could mean fewer funds are available for everything else.
At the same time, Democratic strategists have also begun circulating polling about the popularity of spending on pandemic prevention and fretting about the potential political blowback of failing to fully fund efforts at a time when the coronavirus pandemic — which has killed almost 650,000 Americans and repeatedly shaken the foundations of the nation’s economy — remains the top issue for voters.
Data For Progress, a progressive polling outlet, found that 76% of Americans support investing in pandemic prevention while only 16% oppose it. When respondents were asked how the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — which has jurisdiction over the funds — should spend the $276 billion allocated to it, a 27% plurality said pandemic prevention should be the committee’s top priority.
Guarding Against Pandemics, which is funded in part by cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, paid for the Data for Progress poll. The group has also pushed lawmakers to restore the pandemic prevention funds.
The $65 billion pandemic preparedness plan, crafted jointly by the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, will make it into a future presidential budget request, Lander said, portraying the proposal as a generational effort.
“Like any ambitious endeavor, whether it’s going to the moon with the Apollo mission or cracking human DNA with the Human Genome Project, an effort like this will take serious sustained commitment and accountability,” Lander said.
The White House’s efforts have the support of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. But some Democrats are worried about how the House Energy and Commerce Committee — which also needs to fund many of the $3.5 trillion budget package’s climate change and health care priorities — will handle the issue.