White House, Senate GOP clash over testing funds

Senate Republicans are clashing with the White House over whether to include new money for coronavirus testing in the next relief package, which lawmakers estimate could swell to $2 trillion once Democratic demands are included.

The intraparty tension in the GOP could give Democrats leverage as congressional discussions intensify over the next couple weeks. 

White House negotiators led by Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Republicans lawmakers rebuke Trump on election On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Vulnerable Democrats tell Pelosi COVID-19 compromise 'essential' MORE and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsWhite House chief of staff knocks FBI director over testimony on election fraud Anxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid Pelosi hopeful COVID-19 relief talks resume 'soon' MORE want to keep the size of the initial Republican offer to around $1 trillion. They’re balking at including another $25 billion for COVID-19 testing because states still haven’t spent much of the money Congress has already appropriated for testing. Congress appropriated $25 billion for testing in the $484 billion interim relief package Congress passed in April.

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Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSCOTUS confirmation in the last month of a close election? Ugly Senate to push funding bill vote up against shutdown deadline Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day MORE (Mo.), one of the Republican senators negotiating with the administration, said not providing more money for testing in the next relief package doesn’t make sense.

“I just think that’s wrong,” he said when asked Monday about the administration’s opposition to billions of dollars in additional money for testing. “We’re in the process of developing tests that would be easier to take and quicker responded to. If you’re going to get people back to school and back to work, having those kinds of tests is really important.”

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderPelosi urges early voting to counter GOP's high court gambit: 'There has to be a price to pay' Graham: GOP has votes to confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy MORE (R-Tenn.), who is negotiating with the White House, said, “My view is we should do whatever we need to do to make sure we have adequate tests.”  

Senate Republicans fear losing control of their majority in the November elections and see testing as a major political and policy issue. They want to provide enough money to boost testing through the end of the year.

Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneHouse to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error Senate passes resolution reaffirming commitment to peaceful transition of power MORE (R-S.D.) told reporters Monday there needs to be more money for testing.

Thune said he supports “anything that will help open up the schools in the fall.”

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“I think testing helps with that, so I’m for whatever it takes to get enough tests out there to safely open up schools and other aspects of our economy,” he said. “We need to do better than we are, and I think that will be addressed in this bill.”

Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerHillicon Valley: Election officials prepare for new Russian interference battle | 'Markeyverse' of online fans helps take down a Kennedy | GOP senators unveil bill to update tech liability protections Google, Apple, eBay to meet virtually with lawmakers for tech group's annual fly-in Congress botched the CFPB's leadership — here's how to fix it MORE (R-Neb.), an adviser to the Senate Republican leadership team, said, “I think that increased testing is necessary for us to get a handle on it.”

“It’s important that we have more testing so we can figure out where the hot spots are and be able to address them,” she added.

A congressional official familiar with the negotiations said the White House is concerned about keeping the cost of the initial Republican coronavirus relief proposal low, as it’s likely to increase substantially during negotiations with Democrats.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Overnight Health Care: New wave of COVID-19 cases builds in US | Florida to lift all coronavirus restrictions on restaurants, bars | Trump stirs questions with 0 drug coupon plan Overnight Defense: Appeals court revives House lawsuit against military funding for border wall | Dems push for limits on transferring military gear to police | Lawmakers ask for IG probe into Pentagon's use of COVID-19 funds MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' 3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Cruz blocks amended resolution honoring Ginsburg over language about her dying wish MORE (D-N.Y.) support a $3 trillion relief package passed by the House in May.

“The administration is trying to figure out why we think states need more money considering that there’s still money that they haven’t spent in the CARES Act,” said a Republican congressional official explaining the dispute over new funding for testing.

“Our view is we’re looking ahead and see what’s going to be needed over the next four or five months, through the end of the year. And we think it makes sense to fund it,” the source added.

Mnuchin and Meadows met with Senate Republican negotiators Monday evening, and they are scheduled to brief the entire Senate GOP conference at lunch Tuesday.

Meadows didn’t appear enthusiastic about adding more money for testing when asked on his way to a meeting with Senate Republican negotiators.

“That will be part of the discussion, I’m sure,” he said.

A senior administration official noted that Senate Republicans are asking for another $25 billion in testing, the same amount lawmakers appropriated in late April when Congress passed an interim $484 billion package to replenish funds for the Paycheck Protection Program. Nearly $13 billion of that funding remains unspent, including almost all of the $1 billion given directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the official said.

While $10 billion has been obligated to state, local and tribal governments for testing, less than $100 million has actually been spent, according to the official.

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The disagreement over new funding for testing comes at a time when Republican lawmakers are breaking with White House talking points on the outlook for the crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Republican lawyers brush off Trump's election comments MORE (R-Ky.), who is up for reelection this fall, warned constituents during the July recess that the coronavirus will not “magically disappear.”

“I think the straight talk here that everyone needs to understand is this is not going away,” he said.

The comments appeared to push back on President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE’s prediction, repeated during a recent interview with Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceHouse to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Gayle King calls out Pelosi for calling Trump supporters 'henchmen': 'Egregious language' GOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power MORE of Fox News, that the virus is “going to disappear.”

Senate Republicans are growing more concerned about the nation’s ability to track infections as the number of coronavirus cases has spiked in Southern and Midwestern states such as Arizona, Florida, Texas, Michigan and Ohio.

McConnell’s home state of Kentucky is averaging more than 500 new cases a day, an increase of more than 200 percent compared to two weeks ago, according to data analyzed by NPR.

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Former White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyOn The Money: House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles | New York considers hiking taxes on the rich | Treasury: Trump's payroll tax deferral won't hurt Social Security Blockchain trade group names Mick Mulvaney to board Mick Mulvaney to start hedge fund MORE warned in an op-ed for CNBC last week that “we still have a testing problem in this country.”

The White House is also opposed to $10 billion in new funding for the CDC and foreign assistance to combat the spread of the coronavirus in poor countries.

“There’s international assistance, they don’t want to do anything for that,” said the Republican congressional official.

Republican lawmakers have suggested using the bulk of the requested CDC funding for vaccine distribution.

But administration officials argue that Trump has already agreed to funding for Operation Warp Speed to distribute the vaccine and that the Republican request for additional CDC money would essentially pay for vaccine distribution twice. The administration believes the CDC has more than enough money, and there’s resistance to sending billions of dollars more to an agency that many Republicans privately blame for mishandling the response to the coronavirus.

The senior administration official pointed out that the CDC has received more than $7.5 billion from previous legislation and that $5 billion of that funding is still unobligated.

Jordain Carney contributed.