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Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas took last week’s Senate recess far too literally, flying with his family to Cancun while his fellow Texans endured a deadly winter weather disaster on top of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He then deflected blame and provided shifting explanations. It was a personal failure of leadership, of self-awareness, and of honesty.
However, what was a shameful episode for one senator also points to an institutional failure of urgency from Congress as a whole.
Not to excuse Cruz, but the Senate shouldn’t have been in recess in the first place. The same is true for the House of Representatives.
Democratic leaders, now in charge of both houses of Congress and the White House, have made urgency a key part of their argument in favor of using the budget reconciliation process to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 recovery package without needing any Republican votes.
If this effort is so urgent, shouldn’t members of Congress remain in Washington and in session until the work is completed?
The fact that lawmakers took a break from legislative session last week (even as some committees and staff continued to work on COVID relief) highlights an unfortunate reality: reconciliation has never been the fastest way of delivering more funding for widely agreed-upon areas like vaccines, testing and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Reconciliation may be a “fast-track” measure relative to the normal budget process, but it has its own procedural hurdles that can slow things down compared to other legislative avenues. Republican support for more vaccine investment is real, and so is the immediate need. A group of 10 Republican senators — enough to break a filibuster — have already signaled support for the same amount of funding that President Joe Biden’s plan included for a national vaccination program.
What we do have a problem with, however, is a group of lawmakers claiming to move as fast as possible while failing to take a faster path right in front of them. And importantly, it is a path that wouldn’t make them sacrifice size for speed.
Biden’s plan called for $20 billion to support a national vaccination program. The group of 10 Republican senators, led by Sen. Susan Collins, called for the same. Both plans shared the same topline amount — $160 billion — for vaccines, testing, PPE and other public health measures.
House Democrats are expected to pass Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package later this week, but once again, this will not be the finish line. Rather than waiting for the reconciliation process to play out, which could stretch into mid-March or later, Congress should vote now to separately pass legislation that addresses pressing areas of clear agreement like more funding for vaccines. This vote should have happened weeks ago, as Maine and other states continue to work through vaccination challenges.
Politics notwithstanding, this approach seems like the obvious thing for Congress to do. It would get much-needed aid out to the American people faster, without preventing Democratic leaders from using reconciliation to pass additional relief that doesn’t have the same level of bipartisan support.
And yet, Maine’s 2nd Congressional District Rep. Jared Golden has been on an island of sorts as he repeatedly urges his colleagues to prioritize funding for vaccination efforts. While a group of more than 50 Republican and Democratic representatives have now echoed Golden’s call, he was the only Democrat in either the House or Senate to oppose moving forward with the reconciliation process.
This week, Golden has continued his push to prioritize funding for things like vaccines and PPE as Congress works through reconciliation. And he continues to make a very good point.
“We need to walk and chew gum. And when it comes to investments that can speed up vaccination programs and our capacity to test around the country, that should go first,” Golden told Maine Public.
Forget doing two things at once. Quite frankly, with a recess last week, we’re not convinced Congress has even been walking. When it comes to ramping up vaccination efforts and other public health priorities that have bipartisan support, it looks more like Congress is crawling.