White House seeks $1.25 billion more for coronavirus response

Combined with previously appropriated funds, the new plan would provide at least $2.5 billion to try to contain the COVID-19 disease.

The request comes a day before Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is scheduled to appear before the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee on Tuesday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The request comes a day before Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is scheduled to appear before the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee on Tuesday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 24, 2020 at 9:12pm

The Trump administration sent a request to Congress on Monday night for $1.25 billion in additional emergency funding to help combat the deadly coronavirus disease outbreak.

Combined with a move to allow the use of $535 million in previously appropriated funds for the Ebola virus response, among other unspent resources, the White House said the new plan would provide at least $2.5 billion to try to contain the COVID-19 disease.

According to a letter accompanying the request from acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought, the U.S. government has "taken unprecedented steps" to shield Americans from the disease. 

"However, much is still unknown about this virus and the disease it causes. The Administration believes additional Federal resources are necessary to take steps to prepare for a potential worsening of the situation in the United States," Vought wrote to congressional leaders.

The proposal would set aside more than $1 billion for vaccines as well as funding for what are described as therapeutics, vaccine development and stockpiling of personal protective equipment such as masks.

An administration official said the money is being requested in one lump sum account to give the Department of Health and Human Services maximum flexibility. While the funding is intended for fiscal 2020, the White House said there would be flexibility to spend it through 2021 if necessary.

The coronavirus that causes the disease, which broke out in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, and is similar to the SARS and MERS viruses that caused outbreaks in the past, is proving persistent despite aggressive attempts to contain it.

The new funding request comes a day before Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is scheduled to appear before the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee on Tuesday morning.

The package also could help to calm financial markets if the federal government appears to have a coherent response to the disease outbreak, which caused stock markets to tank Monday after a spike in reported cases over the weekend in countries including South Korea and Italy.

The Trump administration has scheduled a briefing for senators on the COVID-19 situation for Tuesday morning.

'Woefully insufficient'

House Democrats criticized the request as too little, too late, and suggested they'd add to the price tag in their own version.

“The Trump administration’s request for emergency funding is woefully insufficient to protect Americans from the deadly coronavirus outbreak," Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said in a statement late Monday.

She called it "profoundly disturbing" that the White House would seek to "raid" public health funds designated for other purposes, adding that even then the overall dollar figure is too low. Lowey said the House would "move quickly to enact a robust package" that more fully funds an appropriate response effort.

In an emailed statement earlier Monday, Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, urged that funding be provided for surveillance, epidemiology, screening, research on vaccines and treatments, direct assistance to state and local health agencies.

DeLauro cautioned the White House against rescinding other unspent funds to pay for the request, urging that the new funding “be provided quickly and without diverting funds from important HHS programs like medical research at the National Institutes of Health or school readiness for our youngsters at Head Start.”

Groups representing state and local health departments earlier Monday wrote to Appropriations Committee leaders and the White House detailing what they hope a supplemental would address. The groups said that more funding is needed to help with quarantine-related activities, lab testing, acquiring protective equipment and public outreach, among other issues. 

"The burden of a public health emergency response quickly exhausts the financial resources of routine, budgeted preparedness activities," said the groups, including the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists and the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

The officials noted how the COVID-19 outbreak is the first time since concern about smallpox in the 1960s that individuals have had to be quarantined within the U.S. "Isolating and quarantining individuals and maintaining critical supplies, such as new lab tests and reagents, are beyond the scope of current federal grants," they wrote.

It’s possible the coronavirus supplemental could move with a reauthorization of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorities, which expire March 15. That date coincides with the start of the next congressional recess, making FISA a logical vehicle to attract other priority legislative riders.

There are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who've been pushing for broader reforms to FISA, however, and may not be amenable to another clean extension like the one Congress passed in November.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.