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Tensions flare as Democrats press Pence over coronavirus testing

Tensions flared on Friday between Senate Democrats and Vice President Pence as senators pressed administration officials during a conference call for answers on coronavirus testing.

The hourlong call — the latest in a series of briefings taking place while members are scattered across the country— comes as the administration is eager to start reopening the country even as Democrats and public health experts warn there needs to be a dramatic escalation in testing.

"I have never been so mad about a phone call in my life," the normally mild-mannered Sen. Angus KingAngus KingOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 | Kerry presses oil companies to tackle climate change | Biden delays transfer of sacred lands for copper mine Senate Democrats negotiating changes to coronavirus bill Biden CIA pick pledges to confront China if confirmed, speak 'truth to power' MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, said during the conference call with Pence and other Trump officials, according to two sources.

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King, according to one of the sources, views the administration's stance on testing as an "abdication of the federal government’s responsibility." A second source said King specifically labeled the administration's lack of national testing regime as a “dereliction of duty" on the call.

A Democratic source said that nearly every question from Democrats during the call was about the administration's "inadequate testing regime," but that Democrats did not feel like Pence or other White House coronavirus task force members were giving them clear answers. 

A spokeswoman for Pence, who is overseeing the task force, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the call.

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci donates personal COVID-19 virus model to Smithsonian Fauci warns of risks from single-dose strategy for Pfizer, Moderna vaccines MAGALand in Orlando MORE, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, were also on the call.

Fauci, speaking at the White House's daily press conference on Friday evening, called the conversation with Democrats "very productive."

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"And they asked a number of questions which were really reasonable questions," Fauci said, including a question about if there are enough tests to allow states to go through the first phase of lifting social distancing restrictions.

In addition to questions about testing, two sources confirmed that Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: DC Guard chief testifies about hampered Capitol attack response | US contractor dies of heart attack after Iraq rocket attack | Pentagon watchdog finds 'inappropriate conduct' by ex-White House doctor Biden reignites war powers fight with Syria strike Bipartisan group of senators introduces bill to rein in Biden's war powers MORE (D-Va.) questioned Pence during the call on a series of tweets from Trump calling to "LIBERATE" states, offering apparent support for protesters who are calling for restrictions to be lifted.

Kaine asked Pence why Trump "was trying to incite division in the midst of a global pandemic," according to a Senate aide familiar with the call. Two sources told The Hill that Pence did not directly answer the question, with one characterizing him as saying Pence "danced around it."

The second source said Pence "tried to deflect by talking about how they are working respectfully with governors, and Kaine jumped back in to say that those tweets are not at all respectful."

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSenate panel splits along party lines on Becerra House Democrats' ambitious agenda set to run into Senate blockade A Biden stumble on China? MORE (D-N.Y.), according to the source, wrapped up the call by saying that Democrats agreed with Kaine.

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Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanRosen to lead Senate Democrats' efforts to support female candidates Pro-Choice Caucus asks Biden to remove abortion fund restrictions from 2022 budget Senate Democrats call on GAO to review child care access barriers for disabled parents, kids MORE (D-N.H.) tipped her hand publicly to the frustration in a tweet after the briefing.

"I appreciate @VP Pence briefing Senate Democrats today, but it is deeply concerning that the administration still doesn’t have a plan to track daily testing capacity in every lab in the country, publicly release that data, and put forward a plan and timeline for identifying gaps," she said.

Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzMinimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster Little known Senate referee to play major role on Biden relief plan Bipartisan group of lawmakers proposes bill to lift rule putting major financial burden on USPS MORE (D-Hawaii) also criticized the administration's handling of the crisis in a tweet after the call.

"Pandemic response has to be coordinated and paid for at the federal level. States don't have the labs, the control over the supply chain for testing and other equipment, the scientific and health research agencies, or the money to handle this without strong federal leadership," he tweeted.

Democrats have seized on the need to have a nationwide testing regime in place before social distancing restrictions are limited, including proposing $30 billion in additional emergency funding.

“If we don’t have a strong, adequate testing regime, we’re going to have real trouble,” Schumer said during an interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." “You have to know who has the illness, who’s immune from the illness and who could get the illness before we can determine who can go back to work and who can’t.” 
 
But the guidelines unveiled by the administration Thursday do not include a national testing system. Instead the guidelines explicitly leave it to states to scale up their own testing systems, including antibody tests. There was no plan on how the federal government would provide support to states trying to do that.

Updated: 7 p.m.