Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response

Lawmakers in both parties on Tuesday expressed growing alarm that the threat of coronavirus in the United States is serious, and that the Trump administration is not doing enough to fight it. 

Two Cabinet members at separate hearings were grilled over what lawmakers described as an insufficient response so far, while Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said the White House’s budget request to handle the disease was lackluster.

“It seems to me at the outset that this request for the money, the supplemental, is lowballing it, possibly, and you can’t afford to do that,” Shelby told Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar during a hearing on the agency’s budget request. 

“If you lowball something like this, you’ll pay for it later,” he added, telling reporters he planned to recommend a “higher” amount without offering details.

Democrats were unsparing on their criticism, with Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) saying the administration was showing “towering and dangerous incompetence” in its response to the virus.

He called for at least $3.1 billion in funding and for the administration to appoint a czar to oversee the response. 

The broadsides from lawmakers came against the backdrop of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issuing a warning for the country to prepare for an outbreak of cases in the U.S., and another difficult day on Wall Street, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 879 points. The index lost more than 1,000 points the previous day.

Messages from the White House diverged throughout Tuesday, with White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow raising eyebrows with remarks in an CNBC interview stating that the virus was “contained” and that it was pretty close to “air-tight.”

His remarks came the same day the CDC warned of an inevitable outbreak in the United States.

“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters. “Disruption to everyday life might be severe.”

The widely different messages from administration officials coming the same day invited criticism from Democrats.

“It is clear this administration is in total disarray when it comes to this crisis of the coronavirus,” Schumer said Tuesday.

He also ripped the administration for budget cuts to the CDC.  

Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), the only Republican to vote for Trump’s impeachment earlier this year, also harshly criticized the administration.

“I’m very disappointed in the degree to which we’ve prepared for a pandemic, both in terms of protective equipment and in terms of medical devices that would help people once they are infected,” Romney said.

Democrats have pushed for weeks for emergency funding, but Azar had previously taken the position that no new funds were necessary. Democrats said the $2.5 billion request that came Monday night was inadequate, and they faulted its lack of details and cost estimates.

“They should have made this request three weeks ago when a lot of us were begging for it,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I worry that it’s both too little and potentially too late.”

Democrats have also criticized the Trump administration’s dismantlement of a global health security team on the National Security Council that could have helped coordinate the government’s response. 

They say the administration should designate a public health expert to lead the response, and not leave it to Azar, who also has to run one of the government’s largest agencies.

“They tore down the National Security Council capacity to deal with pandemic disease; they’re putting somebody in charge of the response who has a million other jobs,” Murphy said. “There’s just no seriousness in this administration about a disease that is going to be a global pandemic, that is going to shave 5 to 10 points off global markets, and I think that’s really frightening.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) questioned Azar at a hearing Tuesday about whether the U.S. was ready for an outbreak, questioning why the country doesn’t have enough medical supplies and protective gear stockpiled. 

“We are disregarding scientific evidence and relying on tweets and an emergency supplemental without details, and we’re not stockpiling things right now we know we might possibly need for this or for any other future pandemic,” she said. “I am deeply concerned we are way behind the eight ball on this.”

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) separately grew visibly irate in questioning acting Department of Homeland Security head Chad Wolf at a hearing on Tuesday, after Wolf could not provide satisfactory answers to questions like the mortality rate from the virus and the number of masks needed. 

“You’re the secretary, I think you ought to know that answer,” Kennedy told him. 

Asked later by reporters if the administration’s response has been good, Kennedy said, “I’ve heard three responses today and they’re all different.”

Azar defended the administration’s response Tuesday, arguing it has “aggressively” moved to contain the coronavirus by banning foreign nationals from entering the country if they had recently traveled in China. But he conceded there might be a limit to what they can do. 

“We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus,” Azar said. “And we need to be realistic about that.”

Some Republicans defended the administration’s response.

“We’ve done a good job so far,” said Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), noting the number of U.S. cases had stayed flat at 14 for several days, not counting people returning from a cruise ship overseas.

There are 57 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., including in 40 Americans who were repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. 

Alexander called the funding request “a good start,” adding, “if they need more, we’ll appropriate it.”

Azar said the U.S. currently has 30 million masks stockpiled, but needs 300 million masks just for health workers. The supplemental funding would pay for those masks, as well as the development of vaccines and treatments, assistance for state and local health departments and improved surveillance of the disease.

Separately, problems with a test developed by the CDC has delayed the ability of state and local health departments to test patients for the coronavirus. 

House Democrats plan to put forward their own funding bill at a higher amount. 

“The House will swiftly advance a strong, strategic funding package that fully addresses the scale and seriousness of this public health crisis,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Monday night. 

Tags Appropriations Chad Wolf Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Chuck Schumer Coronavirus John Kennedy Lamar Alexander Larry Kudlow Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Patty Murray Richard Shelby Secretary of Health and Human Services
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