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 Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows 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.

Sen. Roy Blunt (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 Alexander (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 Thune (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.”

“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 Fischer (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 Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (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.

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 McConnell (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 Trump’s prediction, repeated during a recent interview with Chris Wallace 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.

Former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney 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.

Tags Charles Schumer Chris Wallace Coronavirus Deb Fischer Donald Trump John Thune Lamar Alexander Mark Meadows Mick Mulvaney Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Roy Blunt Steven Mnuchin

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