Why Did Democrats Vote With the GOP to End the COVID National Emergency?

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and a handful of other Democrats sent shockwaves across social media on Tuesday after apparently voting with Republicans to terminate the COVID-19 national emergency declared by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 as the virus shuttered the nation and much of the world. Schumer’s office later told reporters that his “yea” vote was mistakenly recorded — including on his own website — and his vote was actually a “nay.” Other top Democrats still voted with the GOP.

In a 61-37 vote, 11 Democrats joined 49 Republicans in voting for a joint resolution to bring the pandemic national emergency declaration to an end. Unless there were other “mistakes,” the Democrats voting with Republicans include Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), Sen. Tim Kaine (Virginia) and others. Progressive observers were outraged, arguing the pandemic is far from over with winter threatening a surge in COVID cases along with other respiratory illnesses that could destabilize an already stressed health care system.

However, there appears to be some confusion not only over who voted for what, but also over two different declarations. Trump reluctantly declared a “national emergency” in March 2020 after the World Health Organization designated COVID a global pandemic, but an earlier order signed by Trump’s health czar at the Department of Health and Human Services declared a “public health emergency” in January 2020 as the virus threatened to sweep across the United States. Both declarations give the federal government emergency powers to intervene in state policy in order to meet urgent medical needs.

The Senate’s joint resolution would only affect the national emergency declared by Trump and was passed by simple majority under the Senate’s executive oversight rules. The Biden administration recently announced another 60-day extension of the public health emergency, which gives the federal government power to expand Medicaid coverage, nutrition assistance, and other benefits often provided by state governments for the duration of the pandemic.

The White House also said President Joe Biden would veto the Senate resolution to terminate the national emergency declaration, and House Democrats may choose to ignore the resolution for the remainder of their term in the majority. In a statement, the White House said the national emergency provides the federal government with authority ensure that “necessary supplies” are readily available as winter approaches and the health care system remains under stress. The order allows millions of people to receive free tests, treatments and vaccines through federal and state programs.

“Strengthened by the ongoing declaration of national emergency, the federal response to COVID19 continues to save lives, improve health outcomes, and support the American economy,” the White House Office of Management and Budget statement said, adding that terminating the national emergency “abruptly and prematurely would be a reckless and costly mistake.”

Last month, Biden extended the national emergency indefinitely before it will finally expire on March 1, 2023, according to Fierce Healthcare. The declaration allows for waivers that expanded the use of telehealth services and loosen regulations to allow for innovative public health programs, such as federally supported COVID testing sites.

The administration has also drawn authority from both emergency declarations to expand nutrition benefits for low-income families and to bolster programs such as Medicaid and Medicare to protect people from losing health coverage during a pandemic. Removing the public health emergency order in particular could open up federal pandemic efforts to challenges from conservative states.

Kansas Republican Sen. Roger Marshall introduced the joint resolution to terminate the national emergency declaration on Tuesday, citing a CBS interview with Biden in September, when the president said the “pandemic is over.” Some observers saw the statement as a gaffe after administration officials walked it back. On the Senate floor, Marshall argued that COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations are down, and the administration is “manipulating” policy in order to “super-size” government power and enact a federal “spending spree.”

On the floor, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) noted that it was the third time the Senate debated Marshall’s resolution and warned it was a “recipe for chaos” in the health care system as winter brings COVID, flu, and other viruses. The resolution would create “red tape” and make it harder to for federal agencies to keep waivers on the books that have kept hospitals staffed and supplied, and allowed for flexibility in programs such as Medicaid, which provides health coverage to millions of lower-income people.

“Congress ought to be looking here to support medical workers and protect our health care system from becoming totally overwhelmed by viruses,” Wyden said, adding the resolution was dead on arrival in the House. “The Marshall resolution and this broader Republican effort we have been hearing about on the floor to eliminate health care flexibilities does the opposite.”

However, leading Democrats, such as former presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, voted with Republicans to pass the resolution in the Senate. Press offices for both Senators Schumer and Klobuchar did not respond to several inquiries from Truthout.

The resolution is unlikely to be taken up by the House while Democrats remain in charge, but leading Democrats may be signaling to the Biden administration that it should start preparing for an “end” to the pandemic, or at least to the emergency powers granted to his administration. With a closely divided Senate and the GOP expected to have a slim House majority next year, the senators may be warning Biden that patience is limited among lawmakers and the public alike, and Congress is expected to fiercely debate the issue.

While the resolution did not address the January 2020 public health emergency order from the Department of Health and Human Services, that authorization will also likely be a target for Republicans. If the public health emergency order is revoked or expires in March, the administration’s pandemic powers would begin to unravel, including a requirement that states do not remove people from Medicaid rolls. If the public health order expires during the winter and GOP-led states begin dropping people from Medicaid, experts warn that struggling hospitals could face a financial and logistical disaster.