News & Media

Coronavirus May 12 Update: Senate to Hold Virtual Hearings With Administration Health Officials Today, Democrats Continue to Draft the New Relief Bill, and What Happens If DC Becomes the Next Hot Spot

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Senate committee holds virtual hearing with Trump administration health officials 

Trump administration health officials will testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee remotely on Tuesday, underscoring the challenge of returning to work and school while COVID-19 remains a risk - which happens to be the exact topic of the hearing. Some of the witnesses are self-quarantining after being exposed to the virus, as is Chairman Lamar Alexander. 

The hearing will feature National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn and Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir. It's the first time the four witnesses, who play key roles in the administration's response to the pandemic, will be appearing on Capitol Hill since March. 

Sen. Patty Murray, the committee's ranking member, will likely ask the witnesses about reports of White House interference with public health experts' guidance, the federal government's role in the nation's testing capacity and how the administration plans to equitably distribute a vaccine if one becomes available. 

"Some -- including in the White House -- say we've already provided enough economic relief. My question to them is, 'What good is a bridge that only gets you to the middle of the river?' We don't need to wait around to see if people need more help--we know they do," Murray will say, according to prepared remarks. 

The hearing comes after the White House said Monday it would ensure states have enough swabs and other materials to fulfill their testing goals for this month and explained how officials would distribute $11 billion in aid to states for testing. 

Democrats’ new relief package is still a work in progress 

The House could take up a Democrat-written coronavirus relief bill as early as Friday, but the measure remained a work in progress. 

House Democrats discussed the bill in a caucus conference call Monday and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., announced a potential timeline for members to return to Washington for a vote. Friday would be the earliest the House would reconvene for legislative business and members would be given 72 hours notice of when they would need to be at the Capitol, he said. 

But the timeline for action appeared to be slipping as debate continued over the size and shape of the next response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With bipartisan talks on hold, the bill drafted by Democrats is designed to serve as an opening bid for a compromise package that could take weeks to develop. 

"I think most of us in the caucus prefer that we go big, because it's got to be big to protect local governments," said Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, D-Texas, a member of the House Financial Services Committee, who talked to reporters Monday in a conference call. "When it comes to local, you could probably do just a trillion [dollars] on that." 

And the so-called Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to small businesses, could need $1 trillion as well, Garcia said. Congress already had to provide $310 billion in new funding for the program (PL 116-139) when its initial allocation of $349 billion (PL 116-136) ran dry within two weeks. 

But Democratic moderates have raised concerns about overreaching. They have warned against writing a bill that encompasses more than direct relief from the pandemic or anything that could be seen as overtly partisan, according to a senior Democratic aide close to the moderate wing. 

And Republicans in both chambers are trying to pump the brakes. "We're basically assessing what we've done already," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Monday. "I don't think we have yet felt the urgency of acting immediately." 

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Republican-controlled Senate "dithers" when more aid is needed quickly at a time of skyrocketing unemployment. 

"If President [Donald] Trump and our Republican colleagues go the way of Herbert Hoover, if they oppose or slow-walk government intervention to save the economy that's hurtling downward, I fear the nation could suffer a similar fate, a second Depression," he said on the floor. "We must avoid that at all costs." 

The bottom line: Look for an opening bid from Democrats later this week. 

White House promises funding to states for virus tests 

The White House unveiled plans Monday to allocate $11 billion to state governments for coronavirus testing. 

Testing components such as swabs and chemical reagents have been in short supply since the pandemic began, although signs indicate the supply chain is slowly rebounding. But the country is still testing around 2 million people per week, far below what most public health experts say is needed to safely relax economic restrictions in a country of nearly 330 million. 

The $11 billion in funds, which Congress provided in the most recent coronavirus aid package (PL 116-139), will be allotted based on each state's population and number of COVID-19 cases. 

Hard-hit states like New York and New Jersey would receive the most -- $500 million, according to a map shown at a White House briefing -- while sparsely populated states like Wyoming would receive between $49 million and $99 million. 

A senior official said the administration was providing collection supplies to cover testing for at least 2 percent of a state's population. States with loftier goals would be given supplies to cover a maximum of four times the number of tests they have performed so far this year. Lauren Clason has the full story here

Democrats push foreign coronavirus aid 

Senate Democrats are pushing a bill to authorize $9 billion in new emergency and regular appropriations funds to support international efforts to combat the coronavirus. 

The legislation, unveiled last week, is sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Menendez of New Jersey and is co-sponsored by eight of his Democratic colleagues on the committee. A major focus of the policy bill is to force the Trump administration to cooperate with multilateral organizations in searching for and sharing an eventual vaccine. 

Thus far, the Trump administration has been mostly at odds with the efforts of international institutions to coordinate global efforts to respond to the public health and economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected nearly 3.9 million people worldwide and killed 270,000 according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus dashboard. 

Trump last month announced he was pausing funding to the World Health Organization over criticisms of its initial handing of the coronavirus and China's role in the U.N. agency. The United States thus far is not participating in initiatives by the European Union and WHO to raise funds for a vaccine development drive that would be cooperatively manufactured and shared. 

The Menendez legislation would require the Trump administration to take a more robust leadership response to the coronavirus at the U.N. Security Council, order the immediate resumption of U.S. funding to WHO and authorize roughly $2.8 billion in new and arrears payments to the United Nations and its agencies, including WHO. Rachel Oswald has the full story here.