Trump administration officials told senators at a closed briefing Tuesday morning that the White House’s request to spend $2.5 billion to combat the deadly coronavirus disease outbreak was just the beginning, with more needed as early as this fall.
Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who chairs the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the first tranche of funding, submitted Monday night to Capitol Hill for review, would finance efforts to contain COVID-19 through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
At that point, according to Blunt and fellow Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the White House would seek additional funding, possibly as part of a stopgap funding bill, full-year fiscal 2021 appropriations package or both.
“It seems to me the administration’s request is lowballing it, possibly,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby told Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at a Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. “If you lowball something like this, you’ll pay for it later.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer called for at least $3.1 billion upfront, including more reimbursements to state and local health officials and to avoid cutting other programs. The New York Democrat said the new White House request was tantamount to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
At the early morning briefing, senators heard from several administration officials, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, departments of State and Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget. Attendees said the administration envisions spending $1.5 billion of the requested money on vaccine development in fiscal 2020 alone, with more likely needed down the road.
“We’re playing catch-up, and we still don’t have full access” to information from the Chinese government about the extent of the COVID-19 problem, Maryland Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin said.
“The bad news is this is a very aggressive virus,” said Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander, who is also a senior appropriator. The Tennessee Republican said lawmakers would act to provide additional funds, but he wasn’t sure if $2.5 billion was sufficient. “If it’s not enough, we’ll appropriate more,” he said.
Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, later told reporters that the agency expects the coronavirus to spread within the United States among people who were not infected overseas.
It is “more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” she said.
‘We’re not forgetting about Ebola’
Democrats have already blasted the administration proposal as falling short of what’s needed. Only $1.25 billion of the request would be new funding designated as an emergency, with the remainder pulled from unspent funds previously appropriated for other purposes.
On top of the $1.25 billion, the White House wants to divert $535 million that lawmakers just put into the final 2020 spending law for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund to “purchase vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics” for prevention and treatment of the Ebola virus. That would bring the total to nearly $1.8 billion, which would be topped up with special transfer authority to pull unspent resources from other HHS accounts to get to the full request for “at least” $2.5 billion.
Speaking to reporters in India, President Donald Trump defended the request and said his administration wasn’t letting up on Ebola prevention efforts despite taking money from prior appropriations. “We’re doing a vaccine,” Trump said. “We’re doing a lot of things having to do with Ebola. We’re not forgetting about Ebola. That’s a horrible thing, but we have that now very much under control, other than certain parts of the Congo where they’re having war and we can’t get in.”
Democrats questioned both the size of the administration’s funding request as well as the diversion of resources from other programs.
“Right now, the administration’s approach is disastrously inadequate. The approach right now seems to be to take two aspirin and call us in the morning,” said Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who also questioned why the briefing wasn’t public. “The supplemental is way below what’s needed to protect the American people against an outbreak that seems to be, my impression, virtually inevitable.”
Blunt, who would take the lead on drafting a coronavirus supplemental spending bill in the Senate, said that “in the short term,” HHS and CDC have “about $250 million” that can be tapped immediately, which he characterized as more than enough to meet immediate needs. He said the package he puts together “won’t be exactly like it’s being presented from the White House, in my view, but we’ll see.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered how big the number was that was presented, you could definitely have anticipated that some Democrats, House and Senate, would immediately say it’s not enough,” Blunt added.
At the hearing before Blunt’s subcommittee, Azar told senators it would be up to Congress ultimately whether to use the Ebola money as an offset or appropriate new funding.
Doctors, drugs and money
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson told reporters that fulfilling the supplemental request wouldn’t be an issue. But the Wisconsin Republican argued that money wouldn’t solve everything.
“You can throw money at a problem, but you can’t produce more doctors and nurses overnight. You can’t all of a sudden produce more masks,” he said.
“There will be more than enough funding. Funding is not going to be an issue,” he said. “The administration will have enough money to address this, but you still don’t want to throw money at the problem.”
Johnson said the funding request came now because of growing concerns about the virus’s spread outside of China, in countries such as Italy and Iran. “It’s pretty obvious that we’re going to get cases here in America, spread from not only China but other places, so we need to be prepared to mitigate,” he said.
Johnson and other lawmakers also raised concerns about the medical product supply chain, including for prescription drugs and their ingredients. Johnson said this should prompt Congress to act on ways to bring more drug and medical supply manufacturing back to the U.S.
“We need to learn from this, and we need to do things legislatively to prepare for the next case,” he said.
Speaking separately at a budget hearing Tuesday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the threat from the coronavirus inside the U.S. remains “relatively low.” Currently, at least 14 U.S. cases have been identified, he said, along with 20 or 30 individuals repatriated from cruise ships. “We anticipate those numbers to grow in the U.S.,” Wolf said.
Airports, seaports and land ports of entry have medical screening stations in place to curb the threat, Wolf said at a Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee hearing.
“The department feels very comfortable with the measures we’ve put in place,” he said, while adding that the agency “will likely have to move some money around this year.”
Niels Lesniewski, David Lerman and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.