WASHINGTON (CN) — One week after Congress failed to pass more funding of federal pandemic programs, several lawmakers spent the start of Easter recess in quarantine amid a rise of Covid-19 cases in the nation's capital.
As public health experts see it, partisan politicking is endangering the fight against the ever-evolving virus.
"It's frustrating because we are now in a position two years later where more systems are in place," Alyssa Llamas, director of the Wynne Health Group, said in an interview. ”But what needs to happen is that they're sustained.”
Congress' two-week break over the Easter holiday came late last week just as several lawmakers, members of the press and cabinet members, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Attorney General Merrick Garland, tested positive for the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The string of positive cases on the Hill coincided with Congress' failure to infuse the existing pandemic-response initiatives with more federal funding.
The burden of paying for vaccine procurement, virus research and treatment has become an increasingly fraught one for Congress in recent months as low case counts nationwide and the dissolution of mask mandates have pushed the pandemic to policymakers' back burner.
But cases are on the rise across the country and in Washington, D.C., where average daily reported infections are more than double what they were two weeks ago and transmission rates in the district are at a level not seen since February.
The White House has urged Congress to continue funding Covid-19 vaccine, treatment and research efforts, warning that cutting off the flow of cash to such programs could leave the U.S. unprepared for the next variant and derail pandemic progress.
The Biden administration initially requested lawmakers pass $30 billion in aid, an ask that later dropped to $22 billion. Last week, Senate leaders reached a bipartisan deal to allocate $10 billion in Covid-19 relief. But that agreement fell apart over demands from Senate Republicans that a vote on pandemic aid also include a vote on an amendment to sustain Title 42 immigration restrictions, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued in the early days of the pandemic.
"The poison pill is what we call that kind of amendment," said Todd Belt, professor and director of the political management program at George Washington University, in an interview.
The proposed amendment doomed a swift vote on pandemic aid because several moderate Democrats also support keeping Title 42 in place. The CDC is set in late May to lift the emergency health policy, which allows border officials to turn away immigrants and asylum seekers on the basis of public health precautions.
Belt said the whittled-down $10 billion package and last-minute amendment are indicative of how pandemic policy discussions have morphed into a tool for political battle, rather than a matter merely about public health.
"This is a lot of posturing in advance of the elections, and both sides trying to set up the other party to look bad in the eyes of voters," Belt said.
Democrats want to be seen as cautious and prepared for the future of the pandemic while Republicans want to get Democrats on the record about immigration policy as a precursor to the November 2022 midterms.
"This is a way for for Republicans, primarily, to really sort of fracture the Democratic Party," Belt said.
Dr. Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the CDC decision to lift Title 42's restrictions on immigration is based on the state of the pandemic, but in Congress, it's shrouded in politics.
"There's not really much public health rationale to continue with Title 42, particularly if there are Covid mitigation measures at the border. You know, I am concerned that this is a public health measure, and it's essentially sort of being seen and used as an immigration tool," Parekh said in an interview.