News & Media

Coronavirus March 19 Update: The Senate Scrambles on Stimulus & Medical Supplies Get Wartime Treatment

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Senate scrambling on stimulus

There's nothing like a global pandemic and a complete financial market meltdown to spur the notoriously slow-moving Senate to lightning-quick action. After days of delay, the Senate made quick work Wednesday of a House-passed economic stimulus package providing paid sick leave, expanded food aid, increased Medicaid funding, expanded unemployment insurance and more. The chamber cleared the bill (HR 6201) on a 90-8 vote.

But that measure seemed almost an afterthought as senators began drafting a roughly $1 trillion financial rescue package for the coronavirus pandemic that the Trump administration had proposed just a day earlier. Lawmakers said they were hoping to draft a bill by Thursday and vote on it as early as this weekend, although that timeline could slip. 

"There's still some, as you would expect, loose ends," said Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. "I would suspect this pushes probably at least through the weekend and probably sometime into next week." 

The major pieces so far outlined by the White House are $500 billion in direct payments to individuals and households in the form of rebate checks; small business loans backed by $300 billion in appropriations; and $200 billion in loans and loan guarantees secured by collateral for "severely distressed sectors" of the U.S. economy, including $50 billion set aside for the battered airline industry. 

Trump told reporters Wednesday that his administration wasn't locked into a particular set of proposals, saying they were "playing with a lot of big numbers and a lot of small numbers."
The largest component of the White House plan is cash payments to households, which they'd distribute in two batches of $250 billion each, one on April 6 and the remainder on May 18. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's proposal calls for varying the payments based on income and family size, but hasn't settled on particular thresholds yet. 

Senate Republicans, with few exceptions, appeared ready to back some form of cash payments. 

"I'm not hearing any dissent on the fact that we need to get some cash back to people that really are struggling right now," said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. "There may be some modification as to how the distributions go. But I think we're pretty close to having consensus." Paul M. Krawzak, Lindsey McPherson and Jennifer Shutt have the full story here. 

The bottom line: Look for a Senate Republican stimulus plan as early as Thursday.

Partisan fight brewing

House Democrats were quick to denounce a new $45.8 billion White House request for additional funding to address the pandemic. 

The 118-page request, delivered to Capitol Hill late Tuesday, proposes large funding increases for several federal departments, including $8.3 billion for the Department of Defense, $11.5 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services, $3.2 billion for the Department of Homeland Security and $16.6 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

It also proposes creating a $3 billion account that would be managed by acting White House budget director Russell Vought for "unanticipated needs" that would be structured similar to a fund established following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Democrats said the request is inadequate and includes money unrelated to the pandemic. "This document shows the Trump administration's complete lack of seriousness in facing up to this threat," a House Democratic aide, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said Wednesday. The aide said Democrats oppose additional funding requested for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to deport undocumented immigrants. 

The Trump administration asked for $249 million for ICE that it said will be used to charter airplanes "to continue repatriating" people who have been ordered out of the country. ICE would also use the funding to convert four facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border to "quarantine facilities" and to increase monitoring of undocumented immigrants in the Alternatives to Detention program. 

The White House measure also includes additional funds to help the Veterans Health Administration cope with a surge of patients, as well as money to invest in vaccine research and development and for state and local health agencies. The package would also provide funding to help cash-strapped Amtrak get through the first of the year and evacuate thousands of Peace Corps volunteers still abroad in places exposed to COVID-19. Jennifer Shutt has the full story here.

Medical supplies get wartime treatment

Trump on Wednesday invoked wartime powers -- dubbing himself a wartime president -- in an effort to ramp up production of supplies that health care providers need to test for coronavirus, treat patients and protect themselves for infection. 

After days of Democratic lawmakers calling on him to do so (S Res 547), Trump said he would use the Defense Production Act, which could require manufacturers to boost production of critical supplies and equipment including personal protective equipment, ventilators and respirator masks. 

The unusual move came amid increasingly desperate calls from doctors and hospitals that supplies are running low and hindering their ability to test patients for COVID-19.

Hospitals are stretched so thin that the Centers for Disease Control says on its website that in settings where face masks are not available, medical providers "might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort," although it says such masks' ability to protect against the disease is unknown.

While the private sector has made progress in testing capacity to diagnose COVID-19, there still appears to be a gap in the numbers being processed amid shortages of testing components and protective supplies.
The American Clinical Laboratory Association said its members collectively reported out approximately 14,300 completed tests on March 17, with a total of 43,000 tests to date, but hope to reach 20,000 a day by later this week. The COVID Tracking Project reported more than 76,000 tests conducted, which includes tests by public labs, as of Wednesday evening. 

While Trump said the Food and Drug Administration would soon authorize tests that could be conducted at home, which could help relieve shortages of protective equipment, limitations in test processing could dull the impact of that move. 

The administration also dropped state licensure requirements so that doctors and nurses can practice across state lines, and issued guidance on postponing elective medical procedures. But the latter move might pinch safety-net hospitals that are already overwhelmed by the demands of the outbreak, Mary Ellen McIntire reports.

Addressing mental health needs amid a pandemic

Patients with mental health needs or looking for substance-use disorder treatments are turning to telehealth as public health officials urge the public to stay at home and practice social distancing as much as possible to curb the spread of COVID-19, Sandhya Raman reports. 

But the transition to remote sessions may be a struggle for some who have depended on group meetings as part of their therapy. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that people with mental health conditions may be at increased risk of worse symptoms because of social isolation or stress caused by the pandemic. 

The federal government, states and insurers are all taking steps to try to expand access to telehealth and make it easier for people to get their medication-assisted treatment when they can't have a face-to-face visit with a provider.