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House OKs $8.3 billion coronavirus aid package with little debate

Trump has said he would accept a higher spending level than the original $2.5 billion White House request

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves the coronavirus briefing in the Capitol on Wednesday.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leaves the coronavirus briefing in the Capitol on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House approved an $8.3 billion emergency spending package to help contain the rapidly spreading COVID-19 illness on Wednesday after about 15 minutes of debate, as the death toll continued to mount in the United States and worldwide.

The vote was 415-2, easily eclipsing the two-thirds threshold necessary for passage under suspension of the rules. The two ‘no’ votes were Republicans Andy Biggs of Arizona and Ken Buck of Colorado. In a statement after the vote, Biggs called it a “larded-up bill” that wouldn’t solve the problem and wastes taxpayer dollars.

The Senate is expected to quickly send the legislation to President Donald Trump, who said last week he would accept a higher spending level than the $2.5 billion the White House originally requested. Only half of that amount was new funding, with the rest pulled from existing programs that lawmakers said would shortchange other priorities.

[$8.3 billion coronavirus emergency bill deal reached]

“We worked together to craft an aggressive and comprehensive response that provides the resources the experts say they need to combat this crisis,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said in a statement. “I thank my colleagues for their cooperation and appreciate President Trump’s eagerness to sign this legislation and get the funding out the door without delay.”

Trump’s legislative director, Eric Ueland, confirmed after the House vote that the president “looks forward to signing” the bill.

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Only hours earlier, Shelby said negotiators were “at a standstill” over Democratic demands to maintain drug and vaccine affordability provisions that GOP lawmakers said would stifle innovation. Asked what triggered quick turnaround in sentiment, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., said: “Just a willingness on the part of both sides to have a deal.”

The measure includes $300 million for the federal government to buy drug treatments, tests and eventually vaccines for the coronavirus-caused illness when those are developed.

The package would maintain standard procurement requirements for federal contracts requiring a “fair and reasonable” price for those supplies. It would also provide the Department of Health and Human Services with authority to ensure that they are “affordable in the commercial market” as long as product development isn’t delayed as a result.

House Democrats last month had pushed HHS Secretary Alex Azar on requiring drug companies provided exclusive licenses for the development of vaccines and treatments to offer affordable prices, and if not, yank those licenses and give them to other companies.

Rep. Donna E. Shalala, D-Fla., a former HHS secretary during the Clinton administration, argued that the provision granting the secretary the ability to ensure low prices in the commercial market was symbolically important.

“I think that we’re trying to send a very clear signal that this is going to be accessible to everyone,” she said. “Why would anyone have an interest in not having everyone who needs to from having access to the vaccine?”

A Senate GOP aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, said Republican negotiators “never compromised availability or affordability of vaccines, and stopped Democrats from setting prices in the commercial market.”

Republicans also successfully removed a provision Democrats wanted in the final bill that would have required Medicare to fully cover the cost of a future vaccine, according to a source involved in the negotiations.

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Stockpiling supplies

Most of the money in the package, $6.5 billion, would go to HHS, with $3.1 billion for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund to stockpile medical supplies, including the $300 million to ensure affordable vaccines and drugs. The money would also support research and development into vaccines and drug treatments and aid in response efforts.

About $2.2 billion would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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:

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development would receive $1.25 billion for global health programs, economic support funds and diplomatic programs.
  • The National Institutes of Health would receive $836 million, 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 “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.
  • And there’s a nearly $500 million provision waiving Medicare reimbursement rules so that beneficiaries can receive in-home care without incurring significant out-of-pocket expenses.

So far, more than 80 people in the United States have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and there have been 11 deaths due to the illness. Two more were reported today, including one in Placer County, Calif. — the first outside of Washington state.

Truncated process

The House voted on the measure roughly three hours after releasing text of the bill, an unusually truncated process that illustrates the pressure on lawmakers to act.

The Senate is expected to vote on the coronavirus package Thursday, but will first need to reach an agreement to move off of the energy bill senators are currently debating.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters Tuesday that senators might not hold a roll call vote on the emergency spending bill, in the interest of speeding up its path to the president’s desk.

“If it’s got the support of the leadership in the House and the Senate on both sides of the aisle, my guess is that there’ll be pretty strong interest in moving it quickly. And if we want to move it quickly over here, voicing it or doing it by [unanimous consent] would be a way to do that,” Thune said.

The aid package is seen as essential to ongoing monitoring of the epidemic as well as reassuring the public that the U.S. government is capable of handling unforeseen events.

There is some also hope that the supplemental funding deal will help to calm stock markets that have dropped precipitously over the past week despite surges of optimism on Monday about coordinated government action — and then Wednesday after the Super Tuesday primary results became clear.

This might not be the only supplemental bill Congress passes to address the new virus, lawmakers said Tuesday.

“I wouldn’t be surprised in a matter of weeks that we consider something else,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. “But you know, I can’t predict the pace of this or the complexity of this challenge. We just have to be ready to put the resources on the table to make it work.”

Niels Lesniewski, Andrew Siddons, David Lerman, Katherine Tully McManus, Paul M. Krawzak and Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.

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