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 King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, said during the conference call with Pence and other Trump officials, according to two sources.

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 Fauci, 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.”

“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 Kaine (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 Schumer (D-N.Y.), according to the source, wrapped up the call by saying that Democrats agreed with Kaine.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (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 Schatz (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.

Tags Angus King Anthony Fauci Brian Schatz Charles Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Maggie Hassan Mike Pence Tim Kaine
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