The White House offered details of Covid spending, but peeking was a process

OASHINGTON — It was a striking visual for the television cameras. White House press secretary Jen Psaki climbed to the lectern, waving a thick 385-page binder as proof that contrary to Republican charges, President Biden had been transparent with Republicans about how his administration had spent billions of dollars fighting Covid-19.

“You can have access to it for a prop if you want too,” Psaki offered to reporters. “We will make copies for you.”

But when STAT accepted the White House’s offer, officials declined to make copies of the binder. In fact, it wouldn’t even let STAT take pictures of the content. Instead, the administration gave this reporter an hour to sift through the nearly 400 pages of budget tables and congressional correspondence. White House officials offered the review in a small conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the street from the White House, under the supervision of a budget office worker.

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STAT was the only outlet to ask to see the documents.

The relatively brief review of the contents of the filing cabinets offers a window into what information the White House shared with which lawmakers during an explosive and drawn-out fight over Covid-19 relief funding — a political melee that drove the government to delay the purchase of Covid treatments, the expiration of funding to treat and test uninsured patients and the abandonment of efforts to support the global vaccination effort.

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The documents show that before three dozen Senate Republicans publicly criticized the White House for not being transparent, the senior GOP member on the Senate Health Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (RN.C.), had already requested and received three detailed and separate tranches. responses from the White House on how it had spent Covid-19 funding.

While the White House included documents in the binder that might be embarrassing to Republicans, documents that could have better informed the White House’s spending strategy were left out. None of the documents would have explained how White House officials chose to move money between accounts, which they repeatedly did. These documents would indicate that the funding was not spent exactly as Congress intended. The Biden administration was also supposed to send bimonthly plans to Congress on how to spend Covid-19 relief, but those documents were also not included.

The White House has not formally commented on its restrictions on the filing cabinet, although an administration official has offered that STAT could return to review the documents at another time.

Jhe controversy began in early March, when the White House was preparing to ask Congress for an additional $23 billion in Covid-19 relief funding. Three dozen Republicans, led by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), have accused the White House of not being transparent enough about all the funding Congress has already allocated for the pandemic. They called for a “full accounting” of unspent funds, money spent on vaccines and testing, and plans to release real-time spending data before supporting any new Covid response funding.

However, there is no indication that most of the Republican lawmakers who signed the letter have ever requested spending information from the White House. The exception was Burr. The Biden administration provided detailed budget information in response to Burr’s inquiries about Covid-19 spending on Jan. 13, Jan. 28 and Feb. 8.

Despite the revelations, Burr still signed the critical letter. Burr’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the documents.

Shortly after Republicans accused the White House of lacking transparency, the administration provided documents to several lawmakers in quick succession: Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Romney on March 7, and to Republicans in Senate Health Committee on March 8.

The biggest disclosure, at 271 pages, came in a March 18 letter to Burr. It included detailed information on amounts contracted for vaccines and therapeutics.

A disagreement appears to have centered on whether the Biden administration would disclose individual prices paid for tests and vaccines. The Biden administration wrote to Burr that funding levels were provided in aggregate amounts instead “to maintain compliance with trade secret law and to protect information about market developments.”

The White House says the administration leaked information to lawmakers most involved in drafting the government’s spending bill and deciding how to fund health care. Since early January, Biden administration officials have held more than four dozen calls and meetings with lawmakers, and at least 10 briefings on the need for additional funds, according to an administration official.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Budgets Committees were briefed on remaining funds in July 2021, October 2021 and January 2022, the official said, and Appropriations officials and committee leaders health were informed that sales were low in January and February. .

JThe documents also make it clear that the White House was operating much lower on Covid-19 relief funds earlier this year than it publicly disclosed.

The White House was already skimping on purchases of therapeutics from Pfizer due to budget constraints as of Jan. 4. Officials sent budget tables to lawmakers in relevant congressional committees from mid-January to late January, showing that money for the pandemic response was running low.

The line the White House took in public — which officials stuck to for weeks — was that there was enough money to fight the immediate surge of Omicron, and that more funding would be sought in if needed. An example from January 12: “We have the money we need to fight Omicron. As the President has always said, we will do whatever it takes to defeat this pandemic. And if we need more money at some point, we will ask for that money,” White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters.

The official and public request for $22.5 billion did not come until nearly two months later, late in an arduous process of negotiations over the government’s spending bill.

Even that formal request has caused some confusion — three rank-and-file Democratic staffers said they didn’t understand why the White House’s request was so lower, when just a week before administration officials told lawmakers they needed $30 billion.

Since that bill imploded, support for the Biden administration’s Covid response has dwindled further.

Now, a possible bipartisan Covid-19 relief package in the works costs just $10 billion – and the government still owes Pfizer about $5 billion for the treatments. Lawmakers have bickered over how to offset the costs of this package for weeks, and it is now mired in an immigration policy controversy.

If passed, the bill will include new, stricter transparency requirements. The White House should report to Congress in advance if it closes a deal worth more than $50 million and send lawmakers a report once a month with detailed spending information as well as an inventory. Covid-19 vaccines, therapies and tests.

About Madeline Dennis

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