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Trump open to higher price tag for emergency coronavirus funds

Trump also announced Pence will be responsible for coordinating the government’s virus response efforts

President Donald Trump says he’s willing to accept whatever spending level Congress deems appropriate to combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus disease that federal officials now say is inevitable in the United States.

Trump’s announcement, in a rare White House press briefing Wednesday night, should clear a path for lawmakers to draft a multibillion-dollar emergency spending bill expected to see votes within the next two weeks.

“With respect to the money that’s being negotiated, they can do whatever they want,” said Trump, flanked by administration health officials and Vice President Mike Pence. “We’re requesting $2.5 [billion]. Some Republicans would like us to get $4 [billion], and some Democrats would like us to get $8.5 [billion], and we’ll be satisfied whatever it is.”

Trump also announced that Pence will be responsible for coordinating the federal government’s virus response efforts.

The president spoke just before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that an individual in California had been infected through an unknown source. That’s a possible situation known as “community spread,” which would be a first in the U.S. since the virus broke out in Wuhan, China, late last year.

Trump’s comments follow days of speculation about how much additional funding the federal government will need to spend to reduce the spread of COVID-19, assist local and state health departments, and continue vaccine development.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said earlier Wednesday that appropriators should write an $8.5 billion emergency spending bill.

The sum is substantially larger than the $2.5 billion the Trump administration proposed to set aside for the effort earlier this week, which Democrats panned as “woefully insufficient.” Of that amount, only half would be new emergency appropriations, with the remainder siphoned from existing Department of Health and Human Services funds.

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Schumer’s offer served as Democrats’ opening salvo in negotiations. It’s also substantially larger than the $3.1 billion the minority leader called for on the Senate floor Tuesday, and it’s not clear House Democrats have any intention of going up that high, let alone Senate Republicans.

“We’re working on it, and we’ll have a number, but I’m not sure it’s going to be the number that Schumer’s proposing,” House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey of New York said Wednesday. “Let me leave it like that.” 

Schumer’s proposal would provide:

  • $3 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services’ public health and social services emergency fund. The fund is designed to help prepare for and respond to public health emergencies.
  • $2 billion to reimburse state and local health departments that could run out of money to monitor and address the spread of the virus.
  • $1.5 billion for the CDC’s infectious disease rapid response reserve fund and global health security accounts.
  • $1 billion for the U.S. Agency for International Development emergency reserve fund to assist nations dealing with coronavirus, Ebola and other illnesses.
  • $1 billion for vaccine development at the National Institutes of Health.

Bigger than bird flu package

The request would be larger, as Schumer pointed out, than the $6.1 billion for avian flu preparedness and treatment Congress approved in two batches in late 2005 and 2006, or the nearly $7.7 billion appropriated in 2009 to respond to the H1N1 virus outbreak.

That history is partly why the New York Democrat increased the size of his package from what he discussed on the floor Tuesday, a figure that he’d said was a minimum based on information from state and local public health officials.

The new figure, if approved, would also be larger than the $5.4 billion lawmakers added to the fiscal 2015 omnibus spending package to address the Ebola virus outbreak that originated in West Africa in 2014. 

Lawmakers set aside an additional $535 million for Ebola vaccines and treatment measures in fiscal 2020 in response to a fresh outbreak that began in 2018. The Trump administration now wants to divert that funding to their larger $2.5 billion COVID-19 response, which Democrats have said is not only “too little, too late” but also lacks detailed information about how the money would be spent.

The Senate Democratic offer comes as appropriators in both chambers are working to draft a supplemental spending bill that could be released as early as this week. Lawmakers want to pass legislation to deal with any domestic COVID-19 outbreak before they head home March 13 for a one-week recess and hear from concerned constituents.

A House Democratic aide said “bipartisan, bicameral meetings to work out the details of the coronavirus supplemental” started Wednesday.

“Given that we have received virtually no information from the Trump administration, we are still assessing what amount of funding is needed,” added the aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak for the record. 

Speaking at a House appropriations hearing Wednesday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar told panel members that the Trump administration intends to be “flexible” on the eventual package, noting the initial request called for “at least” $2.5 billion.

He reiterated that the administration was open to avoiding having to dip into money already set aside for the Ebola response, a proposal that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have registered concern with. “I don’t think we should be penny-wise and pound-foolish on that,” House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Tom Cole of Oklahoma told Azar.

Azar also said the administration would work with lawmakers on possibly adding more money during the fiscal 2021 appropriations process that’s just getting underway.

Negotiations over the size and scope of the COVID-19 response come as the disease has now spread rapidly beyond China and has shaken financial markets worldwide. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 index each fell more than 6 percent over the previous two days before stabilizing somewhat Wednesday, although stocks still closed lower for the day.

Trump acknowledged that the disease could have an adverse impact on the U.S. economy. He said other one-off events like the Boeing 737 Max fiasco and General Motors strike last year were also depressing growth, but overall “we’re doing great.”

‘Lowballing’ the costs

Some Republicans this week had been signaling concerns with the White House’s initial request. “It seems to me the administration’s request is lowballing it, possibly,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama said Tuesday.

Lowey said she’s talking with Shelby and other appropriators about a package, but numbers aren’t settled yet in part because information is still trickling in about how to tackle the problem.

“Even if I came out with a number, you may have to add or double it. You just don’t know at this point,” she said. 

David Lerman and Sandhya Raman contributed to this report.

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