This week: House eyes vote on emergency coronavirus funding
Lawmakers are racing to clinch a deal on emergency funding to combat the coronavirus as more cases, and the first deaths within the United States, took place over the weekend.
The House is expected to vote on billions in funding aimed at combating the illness this week, though negotiators have not yet finalized a deal.
“An important step that Congress must take is to ensure the government has the resources needed to combat this deadly virus and keep Americans safe. To that end, House appropriators are working to advance a strong emergency funding supplemental package that fully addresses the scale and seriousness of this public health crisis, which we hope to bring to the Floor next week,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a “Dear Colleague” letter on Saturday.
A group of appropriators, led by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), have been locked in days of negotiations over a potential package to provide supplemental funding amid growing concerns about a widespread outbreak of the virus within the United States.
“We want to make sure if this stuff really spreads that we’re doing our job,” Shelby told reporters late last week.
The administration requested $2.5 billion in funding, half of which would have been new funding. The rest would have come from existing health programs, including $535 million from fighting Ebola.
They’re likely to get double or triple that request. A source familiar with the talks confirmed to The Hill that negotiators are looking at providing between $6 billion and $8 billion.
That’s below the $8.5 billion requested by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), but significantly more than the White House’s request— which even some Republicans characterized as too low.
“I think $2 billion is a little low, I think we’re probably looking at $4 billion in this process, having spoken to Democrat House members from Appropriations,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters last week during a press conference.
Pelosi added in her statement that the funding package had to be comprised of new funding, and that there must be guardrails to ensure President Trump “cannot use these new funds for anything other than fighting coronavirus and infectious diseases.”
Lawmakers are hoping to have the package ready to move by early this week. They face a tight timeline if they are going to get the bill passed by the House, Senate and to Trump’s desk before leaving for a weeklong recess on March 13.
“I hope they can work expeditiously so the full Senate would be able to take up the legislation within the next two weeks. And I hope, as we move forward through this challenge, this body can put reflexive partisanship aside and uphold the spirit of cooperation and collaboration this will require,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week.
The discussions on Capitol Hill come as new cases of the coronavirus were disclosed, including two deaths within the United States.
The two deaths were in Washington, where Gov. Jay Inslee (D) declared a state of emergency in the state on Saturday.
Meanwhile, New York confirmed its first coronavirus case on Sunday. The New York Times, citing a gene sequencing analysis, reported that the virus may have been spreading in the United States for weeks undetected.
In addition to potential funding legislation, several committees will be holding hearings on the U.S. response to the coronavirus.
The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing on Wednesday, while the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP); Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; and Commerce, Science and Transportation committees will each hold related hearings this week.
Four officials including Anthony Fauci, the director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Stephen Hahn, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, are scheduled to testify before the Senate HELP Committee on Tuesday.
On Thursday, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy Homeland Security secretary, and Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, will testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
A number of highly contested primaries are expected to be determined on Tuesday evening, with multiple high-profile incumbents facing tough races to retain their seats.
In Texas, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the top Republican on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, will take on Chris Putnam, a former Colleyville city council member who has garnered the support of conservative outside groups including Club for Growth. Senior Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar (Texas) will take on a challenger from the left, Jessica Cisneros, an attorney and liberal activist, who has received support from progressive members including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
In California, voters will choose the candidates who will face off in the special election for former Rep. Katie Hill’s seat. And former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) will take on two other candidates in the race to become the Republican nominee in what will likely be a second runoff against Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar in the race to replace former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).
The Alabama Senate primary will see former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville (R) battle for the chance to take on Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) in November. Sessions, who previously served as attorney general, has had a rocky relationship with Trump. Sessions fell out of favor with Trump after having recused himself from oversight of the Russia probe and was ousted from the administration in November 2018. But the president has largely stayed out of the race.
If none of three candidates breaks 50 percent the primary race will go to a runoff between the top two contenders.
Lawmakers are still trying to figure out how, or if, they will be able to extend three soon-to-expire provisions of the USA Freedom Act.
Congress has until March 15 to reform, extend or end the intelligence programs, which deal with “lone wolf” surveillance, “roving” wiretaps and a controversial records program that lets the government request phone metadata.
The legislative fight has sparked a larger debate about trying to use the reauthorization legislation to make broader changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the FISA courts.
So far neither chamber has been able to advance a bill related to the expiring provisions.
The House Judiciary Committee yanked its bill last week after Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) threatened to force votes on several FISA-related amendments.
Progressives and libertarian-minded GOP lawmakers have warned for years that they do not believe the government provides enough transparency or privacy protections for individuals targeted for surveillance.
Those concerns have taken root with a broader swath of Republicans after Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in his report on the FISA warrant applications regarding Trump campaign associate Carter Page.
Several Trump allies on Capitol Hill are pushing for broader FISA reforms as part of the USA Freedom authorization.
“Ranking Member [Doug] Collins [R-Ga.] and [Jim] Jordan [R-Ohio] on down have proposed good reforms, reforms that should be bipartisan that not only make sure it doesn’t happen again, but put real criminal penalties in place so that if somebody does violate the law, they’re fully held accountable,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) told reporters.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told reporters last week that Trump was supportive of his amendment that would ban FISA warrants from being used against an American citizen. It would also prohibit information gathered in the FISA court from being used against an American in domestic courts.
The push to use the reauthorization of the three USA Freedom provisions to make broader FISA changes is at odds with the plan preferred by Attorney General William Barr, who pitched Senate Republicans last week on a “clean” extension. Barr’s plan is backed by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), with GOP senators discussing trying to extend the programs until 2022.
But the short time frame has some already discussing a short-term extension. With an energy bill expected to dominate the Senate floor this week, the earliest the chamber could take up an extension of the USA Freedom provisions is next week.
One option could be to attach a short-term extension to another piece of legislation, sparking chatter on Capitol Hill that leadership could try to drop it into the coronavirus package.
But Pelosi and McCarthy have both shot down that idea. And Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs, hinted that they did not want to add unrelated issues into the emergency funding.
“It’s important that we deal with the first problems first — COVID 19 — here for this fiscal year and then looking forward for what’s going coming up in [fiscal] 2021, but not get distracted on unrelated and unattached issues,” Ueland said.
The Senate is set to take up wide-ranging energy legislation by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
The Senate will take an initial procedural vote on the more-than 550 page bill on Monday evening, where they will need 60 votes to get it over the hurdle.
The legislation incorporates more than 50 bills including promoting research in up and coming renewable energies. It also includes efforts to bolster the capture of carbon pollution, including from the coal and natural gas sector, as well as research to expand nuclear energy.
Parts of the bill, including provisions related to mining for minerals needed to make batteries, have earned criticism from environmental groups and some Democrats.
If it passes the Senate a final product will still need to be negotiated by the House, and passed again by both chambers.