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Trump administration sees swift action on coronavirus package

HHS Secretary Alex Azar briefed the media with other administration officials on Friday about the response to the coronavirus.
HHS Secretary Alex Azar briefed the media with other administration officials on Friday about the response to the coronavirus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

White House officials said Friday they are optimistic about seeing a supplemental spending package to address the COVID-19 virus as soon as early next week.

“We think everybody is, on a bipartisan, bicameral basis, is committed with us to accelerating to completion as quickly as possible,” White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland said Friday. “By early next week, staying focused on COVID-19, we could have a package.”

House and Senate appropriators were set to work through the weekend on a package that was shaping up to be in the $6 billion to $8 billion range, though the content and final numbers were still being hashed out.

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Sources familiar with the talks said broad authority to transfer funds within accounts was under discussion, similar to a $5.4 billion Ebola virus package enacted in late 2014. Some Democrats have called for strings to be attached in order to ensure new supplemental funds are limited to the COVID-19 response, but Ueland said the transfer authority contours were likely to be similar to past aid packages.

“The construct of this supplemental, much like previous supplementals to deal [with] infectious disease or outbreaks of necessity has to involve a fair amount of of significant transfer authorities so that secretaries and others responsible are able to target funds to needs as quickly as possible,” he said. 

Ueland discouraged the idea of including extraneous matters in the must-pass supplemental spending bill, including an extension or reauthorization of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act authorities due to expire on March 15.

“We want to see a package on COVID-19 as quickly as possible,” Ueland said at the White House. “By definition FISA would slow it down, yes.”

Ueland spoke with reporters after a briefing organized by Vice President Mike Pence’s office about the government’s response to the virus.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said he anticipated the availability of testing will expand quickly as more labs are brought up to speed on how to test for the virus. Azar said while those tests will become more readily available quickly, development and approval of a test within doctor’s offices could still take months.

“That should rapidly expand in the next several weeks, for the reasons I’ve said, that type of lab-based testing,” Azar said. “What you’re talking about at the doctor’s office would be a bedside type diagnostic, which we have for instance for strep, for flu. We need to get to that, but that is a longer development process.”

Azar said that coming up with such a testing mechanism would be a priority.

“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 [private] labs, that’s going to give us tremendous, tremendous capacity out there in the United States,” he said.

The officials spoke as two new coronavirus cases were identified among the passengers repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. That brings the new total among the ship’s passengers to 44.  

National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Nancy Messonnier said monitoring in six major cities will begin next week.  “We are moving rapidly to not only stand up those six sites but to go from those sites to national surveillance,” she said.

Stock markets saw another steep loss Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average ending the week down about 12 percent.

Earlier in the day, top White House officials including Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow downplayed the market reaction, arguing investors were unduly panicking.

“Really, what I might do today to calm the markets is tell people to turn their televisions off,” Mulvaney said in an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “This is not Ebola, OK?”

Lauren Clason contributed to this report.

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