Senate sends $8.3B coronavirus aid bill to Trump

The House passed the bill Wednesday by a 415-2 vote just hours after it was introduced

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Posted March 5, 2020 at 2:23pm

Congress cleared an $8.3 billion emergency spending package Thursday that's intended to bolster public health resources and assuage fears as the novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout the country.

The Senate voted 96-1 following limited debate on the legislation, sending it to President Donald Trump. He is expected to sign it Friday during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters traveling with him Thursday.

Rand Paul, R-Ky., who wanted the cost offset with cuts to foreign assistance programs, was the chamber's lone "no" vote.

[House OKs $8.3 billion coronavirus aid package with little debate]

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., made it clear that Congress was ready to provide even more funding if necessary, though he noted lawmakers added substantially to the White House's initial $2.5 billion proposal.

"We hope we won't need it. That's why we bumped it up," Shelby said. "If they need money, we will provide it. …Money should be no problem or no object when it comes to the health of the American people, especially to prevent something this contagious."

The 28-page bill was released Wednesday afternoon, following days of behind-the-scenes debate on its size and scope as well as disputes about the best way to ensure the affordability of vaccines and drug treatments to respond to the disease. It moved through the House on a 415-2 vote following about 15 minutes debate.

The legislation would provide $7.8 billion in discretionary spending, mainly for Department of Health and Human Services accounts. About $6.5 billion would go to HHS, including $3.1 billion for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund to stockpile medical supplies, conduct research and development and help community health clinics.

Affordable prices

Of that HHS funding $300 million would be for purchases of drug treatments, tests and eventually vaccines once developed. The measure would apply "fair and reasonable price" standards in federal contracting to such purchases, though Democrats were unsuccessful in their push to apply the same standard to the commercial market.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., admitted Democrats "weren't 100 percent successful" in securing the drug pricing language they wanted in the supplemental. "We were only able to succeed with that in the public sector piece of the bill," she said, noting Democrats "fought to the end" to apply it to the private sector.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would receive about $2.2 billion, including $1 billion for state and local preparedness grants; $300 million for global health security accounts; and $300 million for a fund set up to allow the agency to respond quickly to infectious disease outbreaks.

Other funding includes:

  • $1.25 billion for global health programs, economic support funds and diplomatic programs.
  • $836 million for the National Institutes of Health, mainly for R&D but also $10 million for training to reduce disease exposure for hospital workers, first responders and others.
  • $61 million to the Food and Drug Administration to work "monitor and mitigate" any shortages of medical products as well as to strengthen the country's medical product manufacturing sector.
  • $20 million for the Small Business Administration to boost lending to affected businesses.
  • $136 million to reimburse programs the administration had tapped for initial COVID-19 response efforts, including a program that helps low-income individuals and families heat, cool and insulate their homes.
  • Another provision would temporarily waive Medicare telehealth reimbursement rules during the COVID-19 emergency period, so beneficiaries can avoid exposing themselves to the virus without incurring significant out-of-pocket expenses. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the telehealth waiver would cost $490 million.

Foreign aid cuts

Paul offered an amendment that would have paid for the bill by taking money from various unspent foreign aid funds, including the East-West Center, a nonprofit organization established by Congress in 1960 that aims to "promote better relations and understanding" between the United States and the Indo-Pacific region, according to its website.

The center is located in Honolulu, Hawaii, and was a favorite of former Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii. Inouye died in 2012 but his successors have kept the program alive, including with $16.7 million in the fiscal 2020 spending law.

Paul also wanted to cut any unobligated funds from the Inter-American Foundation, which provides grants to help poor communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. It received $37.5 million in fiscal 2020. Additionally, his amendment would broadly rescind other unspent foreign aid funds proportionally in amounts that would fully offset the coronavirus package.

"I'm not opposed to the emergency funding, but I think the emergency funding should be gotten from other places in the budget and that's the responsible way to act," Paul said on the Senate floor.

State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham urged senators to oppose the amendment, arguing it would hinder current efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 abroad. "If we accept Sen. Paul's offset amendment, it will be devastating our ability as a nation to deal with this matter overseas," said Graham, R-S.C.

Patrick J. Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the State-Foreign Operations panel, said the amendment would have cut $7.3 billion from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.

"It would decimate programs that fund the foreign policy priories of both the administration and the Congress," the Vermont Democrat said. "A cut of that size is about two-thirds of the total funding appropriated for these purposes some of which has already been spent."

The vast majority of Graham and Leahy's colleagues agreed with them, voting 81-15 to table the amendment, or set it aside.

Democrat Maria Cantwell, who represents especially hard-hit Washington state, urged her colleagues to support the legislation, saying funding is desperately needed to help address the outbreak. Of the 11 deaths so far reported in the United States, 10 have occurred in Washington.

"I know there are people in the state of Washington who feel ill who feel like they might be subject to this coronavirus and aren't getting tested," Cantwell said on the floor. "We want to make sure that the public clearly understands what their paths are for getting those tests and we want to make sure that every lab — commercial and academic — in the United States is getting prepared to help us."

Niels Lesniewski and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.