House passes $8.3 billion measure to fight coronavirus

The House overwhelmingly passed nearly $8 billion in emergency funding to combat the coronavirus on Wednesday amid growing concerns about a widespread outbreak within the United States. 

The 415-2 House vote sends the legislation to the Senate, where it will be considered Thursday. That could get the measure to the White House by the end of the week.

Congress is facing intense pressure to act quickly, with California becoming the second state on Wednesday to announce a death from the coronavirus. Eighty cases, including 11 deaths, have been reported in 13 states. 

“Democrats would like to see this emergency funding package passed through the Senate by the end of the week, and we will work with the majority to make sure that that happens. I urge all of my colleagues — in the interest of time, understanding the urgency of the matter — to help us achieve this goal,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Wednesday. 

The House approved the bill just six hours after negotiators clinched a deal and less than 24 hours after talks seemed stuck over a few hurdles, including vaccine affordability. 

In the end, lawmakers agreed to approve more than $7.76 billion to combat the coronavirus — three times the $2.5 billion initially requested by the White House. It also authorizes another $500 million in waivers for Medicare telehealth restrictions, bringing the total figure greenlighted to $8.3 billion.

It includes $2.2 billion to help federal, state and local public health agencies prepare for and respond to the coronavirus, including funds for lab testing, infection control, and tracing individuals who might have had contact with infected people. The bill also reimburses state and local governments for costs they have already incurred. 

“The supplemental is not going to address everything. There’s no question about that,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), whose state has seen 10 coronavirus-related deaths. 

“We are at the beginning. This is a giant first step forward, and I can’t tell you how important the supplemental is going to be for the people of my district in my state.” 

Democrats had pushed for language in the bill that would require any coronavirus vaccines or treatments developed by private companies with federal funding to be priced affordably. But Republicans had argued that could discourage drug companies from investing in potential cures and vaccines. 

The language that ended up in the bill was weaker, stating that the Health and Human Services secretary “may” take measures to assure those products are affordable. Funding was also included to pay for vaccines for people who can’t afford it, said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the House Appropriations health subcommittee. 

“I think we found the right niche. It reassured our friends on the other side. We’ll all make sure nobody profits unduly, but we want to make sure we get a product and make sure that product is available to all Americans,” Cole said. 

“There’s money there for the secretary to purchase vaccines and distribute them how they see fit, so there won’t be any reason why anybody shouldn’t get a vaccine.” 

Democrats touted the inclusion of $300 million for purchasing vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. A House Democratic aide said the carveout would help ensure that “when a vaccine is developed, Americans can receive it regardless of their ability to pay.” 

The coronavirus request came together at lightning speed, by Capitol Hill standards. Trump sent a request for $2.5 billion to Congress on Feb. 24, less than two weeks ago. That request, only half of which would have come from new funding, was immediately panned by Democrats and viewed by some Republicans, including Shelby, as too low. 

Schumer then publicly countered that Congress approve $8.5 billion, all of which would have been new funding. Shortly thereafter, bipartisan talks started in earnest to try to put together a package that could quickly make it into law. 

As appropriators negotiated, the top-line figure quickly ballooned beyond the White House’s request or even a $4 billion range floated by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). Last week, sources told The Hill that they were looking at between $6 billion and $8 billion, and on Monday the figure was $7.5 billion. 

Members of both parties praised the measure for providing the resources needed to handle response efforts. 

“I hope the Senate will take up this emergency funding bill swiftly and send it to the President’s desk for approval before the end of the week,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement.

Vice President Pence, who briefed both the House and Senate this week on the administration’s coronavirus response, urged lawmakers to back the package.  

“One of the points that he made was that our state public health labs have the ability now to test folks. Before the end of the week we’ll have more than 1 million tests available. They have reached out to governors, state public health folks, so the ball is rolling,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said following the meeting. “They need the money, which is why I’m voting yes.”

Two GOP lawmakers — House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) — voted against the measure, citing concerns with the level of spending.

“How do you move from $2.5 billion dollars to $8.5 billion dollars?” Biggs told The Hill.  

“I mean, they’re [the administration] doing all kinds of things that are going to have significant substantive advantages to slow down and protect people. And it looks like this is just a money play to some of my colleagues across the aisle — there’s no offsets, there’s no credibility.”

Tags Charles Schumer Coronavirus Donald Trump Fred Upton Ken Buck Kevin McCarthy Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Nita Lowey Pramila Jayapal Richard Shelby Steny Hoyer Tom Cole
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