Senate passes $8.3 billion coronavirus bill, sending it to Trump
The Senate on Thursday easily passed more than $8 billion in funding to fight the coronavirus, sending the measure to President Trump, who is expected to sign it.
Senators voted 96-1 on the bill, which was finalized and cleared the House the day before.
The bill provides $7.76 billion to agencies combating the coronavirus. It also authorizes another $500 million in waivers for Medicare telehealth restrictions, bringing the total figure greenlighted under the bill up to $8.3 billion.
Included within that is $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 Senate’s passage caps off a weeks-long sprint to get emergency funding through Congress amid growing concerns about a widespread outbreak within the United States.
There have been 99 U.S. cases spread among 13 states, and 10 people have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The Trump administration sent its emergency request to Congress on Feb. 24, less than two weeks ago. The initial $2.5 billion amount, only half of which would have been new funding, was criticized by Democrats and some Republicans as being too low.
By late last week, the bipartisan group negotiating the deal were looking at between $6 billion and $8 billion, sources told The Hill. By Monday that had climbed to $7.5 billon, and the final figure ended up being slightly higher.
But talks appeared stuck as late as Wednesday morning over the issue of vaccine affordability.
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.
A source told The Hill that there was also discussion at a leadership level about ensuring Medicare would fully cover copay for a vaccine, but the idea was rejected by Republicans. Government health care experts have said a vaccine is a year to 18 months away.
The bill does state that the Health and Human Services secretary “may” take measures to assure those products are affordable.
Democrats also 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 bill did face one final hurdle on Thursday in the form of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). The libertarian-minded GOP senator wanted to use money from foreign aid accounts to offset the billions in coronavirus spending, but senators easily set aside his amendment. Paul was the lone senator to vote against the final measure Thursday.
“I think that we should not let fear or urgency cause us to lose our minds,” Paul said ahead of the vote, “and cause us to act in an irresponsible fashion.”