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Blunt sounds off on Biden agenda negotiations and how the U.S. could ‘master’ COVID

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) speaks to the media on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, at the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, speaks to the media on Friday at the site of the future National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt said Friday he expects a budget reconciliation plan with elements of President Joe Biden’s priorities that will be much lower than its initial $3.5 trillion price tag.

The Missouri Republican also said a new medication that could vastly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death among high-risk COVID-19 patients could be another step in taming the pandemic. Blunt was in St. Louis on Friday to tour the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

The budget dispute comes as Democratsare at loggerheads over two bills that could have huge ramifications for Biden’s agenda as president.

One piece of legislation is the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, and it pours hundreds of billions of dollars into things like roads, electric car infrastructure and railways. Blunt was one of 19 Republicans who voted for this measure.

But that bill isn’t likely to make it to Biden’s desk unless separate legislation, known as the budget reconciliation package, also passes. That 10-year spending plan includes money for education, child care, environmental and health care programs. And many Democratic House members are refusing to vote for the infrastructure bill unless a reconciliation bill passes.

Blunt voted against the reconciliation bill, and it’s highly unlikely that the measure will receive any GOP support. When asked if there could be a resolution to the current standoff or if lawmakers could end up passing nothing, Blunt replied, “Well, it would be tragic to end up with nothing.”

He noted that in the 12 combined years of Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s presidencies, “there was lots of discussion about doing something extraordinary in the traditional infrastructure world … and we didn’t.”

“So we’re another 10 years behind in infrastructure,” Blunt said. “Traditional infrastructure is really good for our state. Location is one of our advantages. So I hope that we continue to see that bipartisan infrastructure bill move. My belief is that while it’s still going to have a lot of new government commitments to entitlement programs that I couldn’t support, at some point they’ll come up with a number that enough Democrats can be for that they’ll pass a [reconciliation bill] maybe closer to $1.5 trillion than $3.5 trillion.”

Blunt went on to say that the thing to watch for was whether the reconciliation bill includes new programs that only last for a relatively short amount of time. He pointed to a tax credit program that gives families a certain amount of money for each of their children if they make less than $150,000 a year.

“If you do that for a couple of years, the government needs to work really hard to say, ‘Well, it’s time now to stop doing that,’” Blunt said. “At some point, I think we’re going to see this debate shift from the overall number to the policies in that overall number.”

Afghanistan criticism

In addition to the intrigue over the infrastructure and reconciliation bills, Congress has been dealing with the fallout from the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Some Republican lawmakers, including Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, have called for both Biden and most of his national security team to resign over the execution of the withdrawal.

Attorney General Josh Hawley speaks during Thursday's televised senatorial debate. Oct. 2018.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, has called on numerous national security officials in President Joe Biden's administration to resign over the execution of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“We’ve got to get to the bottom of it,” Hawleysaid during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week. “The administration has proven they have no interest in getting us the facts. They mislead us at every turn. And if it seems like I’m angry over this, it’s because I am. A Missourian is dead because of this.”

Hawley was referring to Jared Schmitz, a St. Louis-area native who was one of 13 soldiers killed during a suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

Asked about Hawley and other Republicans’ calls for resignations, Blunt said, “I don’t want to comment on my colleagues' view of that — either Sen. Hawley or the Armed Services Committee in particular.”

He added that keeping an American presence in Afghanistan would have benefited the Afghan people — as well as prevented the area from becoming “a training ground for terrorists.”

“Clearly I think it’s a big strategic mistake followed by a number of tactical mistakes that left people behind that we shouldn’t have left behind,” Blunt said.

Biden has defended his decision to leave Afghanistan, saying America accomplished its mission of holding Osama bin Laden accountable for the 9/11 attacks. He also said last month he wanted to end an era of “major military operations to remake other countries.”

Urging vaccinations

Blunt also took the opportunity on Friday to once again call for Missourians to get vaccinated against COVID-19. For months, Blunt has been touting the vaccines as highly effective — including through public service announcements.

Blunt also said he received his booster shot recently, since he’s eligible because he’s over 65.

“I think we will see this pandemic move to another structure where we learn how to live with COVID-19 or some variation of COVID-19,” he said. “I still encourage people to get the vaccine. I’m not on the mandate side. I think that’s not a place that the government needs to go with a vaccine that’s this new.”

He said that Merck’s announcement that it developed a medication that could significantly reduce hospitalizations in high-risk COVID-19 patients is also a positive development.

“Therapeutics, a pill that could work — all of these things will help us deal with a COVID threat that apparently is not going to go away,” Blunt said. “But I think we can largely master it even if it’s going to be around.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.