Road ahead: Emergency funding deal for coronavirus expected

Senate to take up a package of energy bills with bipartisan support

Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants guardrails on funding to combat coronavirus to keep it from being allocated for other purposes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants guardrails on funding to combat coronavirus to keep it from being allocated for other purposes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 2, 2020 at 10:32am

Congress is aiming to strike a deal this week on an emergency spending package that could provide between $7 billion and $8 billion in funding to combat the spreading coronavirus. The COVID-19 illness has killed two people in the U.S. so far and with expanded testing capabilities, the number of cases is expected to grow this week.

House and Senate appropriations staff worked through the weekend to put together a measure that would fund the departments of Health and Human Services, State, Homeland Security and Defense and possibly other agencies to fight the disease.

"When we get the supplemental through … I've told the team we will spend whatever amount of money Congress gives us to rapidly speed along the development of the bedside diagnostic, but once we get this fully out to public health labs as well as CLIA labs, that's going to give us tremendous, tremendous capacity out there in the United States," Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said.

Lawmakers are hopeful that the measure could see House floor action before the end of the week.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi outlined parameters of the funding deal that House Democrats are pushing for, including guardrails to prevent the Trump administration from using the coronavirus funding for anything other than infectious diseases.

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"Any emergency funding supplemental the Congress approves must be entirely new funding, not stolen from other accounts," Pelosi wrote in a Dear Colleague letter to the House over the weekend.

"The supplemental must also ensure that vaccines are affordable and available to all who need them, that SBA loans are made available for small businesses impacted by the outbreak and that state and local governments are reimbursed for costs incurred while assisting the federal response to the coronavirus outbreak," she wrote.

[States counting on reimbursements for coronavirus response]

The proposal has not yet been released, but estimates suggest that it will far exceed the $2.5 billion White House request. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer proposed $8.5 billion to deal with the outbreak.

"We think everybody is, on a bipartisan, bicameral basis is committed with us to accelerating to completion as quickly as possible, and most of the indications we get," White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland said Friday.

[House issues guidance for staffers amid coronavirus concerns]

Congress is attempting to fast-track funding to fight the spread of the virus and build capacity within the health system, but Russell Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget made clear Friday that existing funding has not yet run dry.

"We're in a good place right now temporarily," Vought said. "We need a supplemental, we need it soon. There's no doubt about that, but we haven't run out of money, and we've got some time, and we think that Congress is taking this very seriously."

In addition to coronavirus spending, there are 48 different budget and appropriations hearings scheduled across Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Energy package

The Senate will take a break from the usual parade of nominations, taking up a package of energy bills with bipartisan support.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., top lawmakers on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, put forward the measure which includes bills or elements of bills from more than 60 senators across the political spectrum.

The legislation would address a swath of energy, technology and environmental topics if enacted, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, building codes, battery storage, carbon capture, electric grid security and a new generation of nuclear reactors.

The bill would provide financial incentives for hydroelectric power and energy efficiency, and includes a separate section to reauthorize the Weatherization Assistance Program, housed at the Energy Department, through fiscal 2025.

It would direct the Energy secretary to establish a program specific to wind energy and another for solar power. Both would be authorized through fiscal 2025.

Nuclear-power bills sponsored by Murkowski and Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., which would establish national goals for advanced nuclear energy, were included in the package, aides said. So was a measure to create national goals for geothermal energy production on public land.

TSA labor issues

The House will vote this week on a bill that would grant, among other things, TSA employees the same collective bargaining rights enjoyed by other federal employees.

The law that created the Department of Homeland Security as part of the response to the 9/11 attacks did not include traditional rights afforded to federal employees, in part to allow flexibility in response to changing security threats.

The bill would allow TSA employees to take grievances to a third party, institute a pay structure for TSA workers under the General Schedule and incorporate protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

While Republicans have expressed willingness to overhaul TSA pay structure, Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama said in committee that the bill would eliminate “critical flexibilities” and cause the agency to lose part of its ability to respond to evolving threats.

Niels Lesniewski, Benjamin J. Hulac and Dashel Lewis contributed to this report.