Senators press Pence over coronavirus response in private briefing

Senators pressed Vice President Pence in a closed-door meeting on Tuesday over the administration’s response to coronavirus, questioning the official charged with leading the administration's response over a lack of testing for the virus.

Democratic senators in particular asked sharp questions of Pence and administration health officials during a visit to their lunch meeting. 

Some Republican senators, in addition, said they shared growing concerns among Democrats and experts that there are not enough tests being made available, hindering the ability of officials to know how widespread the virus is within the United States. 

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The administration officials’ trip to Capitol Hill came as Washington state announced three more deaths from the virus as it continues to spread, bringing the total of U.S. deaths to nine.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Stephen Hahn told GOP senators, repeating his public comments, that up to a million tests will be available by the end of the week. But some senators, as well as some public health experts, have expressed skepticism of that total.  

In the Democratic lunch, Sens. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenate coronavirus stimulus talks spill into Saturday Senate Democrats propose canceling student loan payments during coronavirus Stimulus plan hinges on McConnell, Schumer repairing toxic relationship MORE and Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellMcConnell sets Friday night deadline for bipartisan deal on stimulus Washington state lawmakers warn health workers running low on protective gear Carper staffer tests positive in Delaware MORE, who represent Washington state, which is at the center of the spread of the virus in the U.S., took a lead role in questioning Pence. 

Cantwell asked the vice president, who is leading the administration’s response, about the lack of tests available. 

“They keep throwing out numbers like millions of tests and we're saying, ‘that's not right,’” Cantwell told reporters afterward. “Millions of tests aren't available right this second. People are calling their doctors and they're not being able to get tests.”

Pence responded by saying that the FDA took steps over the weekend to allow academic and commercial labs to test, expanding the sources of testing, Cantwell said. 

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The administration has faced criticism for not ramping up testing quickly enough. It has also been criticized over problems with the tests that prevented some of them from working, and for its initial imposition of strict criteria on who could get testing. 

Those criteria have now been loosened and officials say more tests are being sent out. 

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE traveled to the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., on Tuesday in a public show of support for the researchers there. 

During the trip, Trump backed off the idea of closing the southern border because of the virus. “We’re not looking at it very strongly," Trump said. "I don’t think we’ve seen any great evidence that that area’s a problem at this moment.”

Democrats said the administration's response is unorganized.

“They’re scrambling,” said Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowCoronavirus crisis scrambles 2020 political calculus Coronavirus stimulus talks hit setback as crisis deepens Democrats call for stimulus to boost Social Security benefits by 0 a month MORE (D-Mich.), adding that Pence said he “realized that was a concern” when asked about the lack of testing. 

Sen. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyTensions boil over on Senate floor amid coronavirus debate  Overnight Energy: Democratic lawmakers seek emissions reductions in airline bailout | House Dems warn Trump against oil industry bailout | GOP senators ask Saudis to stabilize oil market GOP senators ask Saudis to stabilize oil market MORE (R-La.) said that among Republican senators as well there was “a lot of concern about the testing.”

“Our capacity is not where it needs to be right now,” added Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPompeo: Countries must 'step up,' provide 'transparent' coronavirus information to save lives China did not count coronavirus positives if patient had no symptoms: report Trump seeks to sell public on his coronavirus response MORE (R-Fla.), though he noted that officials are ramping up their efforts on testing. 

Experts say the virus could have been circulating in the United States for weeks undetected because a lack of tests meant it simply was not discovered. 

Senators said worried constituents, particularly in Washington state, have been trying to get tested but are being met with confusion and a lack of clear answers. 

“They didn't have the answers we needed,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell launches ad touting role in passing coronavirus relief Joe Biden can't lead the charge from his home in Delaware Texas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters after the meeting. “The biggest question: testing. When and where? They could not answer how soon people would be able to get the tests.”

“We need to know where people can get it, how people can get it and we need to make sure it's not so costly that people don't get it,” Schumer added. “And there were no answers to those vital questions.”

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Jennifer Nuzzo, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the administration’s estimate of one million tests available by the end of the week is “overly optimistic.”

“Some U.S. states still don’t have testing capabilities,” she said. “They are working on it, but it will take time.”

Health officials say that about 80 percent of people who get the virus do not require hospitalization, and that the greatest risk is for elderly people and those with underlying health conditions.  

Democratic senators raised concern that Trump has publicly downplayed the threat in a misleading way.

“The administration on a whole has denied this is happening,” said Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterCoronavirus crisis scrambles 2020 political calculus Some Democrats growing antsy as Senate talks drag on Democrats fume over GOP coronavirus bill: 'Totally inadequate' MORE (D-Mont.). “There's not enough test kits, we don’t know how wide it is because the president dropped the ball early.”

On a call with reporters on Tuesday, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, declined to discuss the criticism of the strict criteria for testing that the agency initially had. 

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"What we really need to focus on now is where we are today,” she said.

Murray also pressed officials at a hearing earlier on Tuesday. 

“I have people in my state who may have been exposed," she said. "They cannot get answers about where to go, and health officials are telling us that they fear that this virus has been circulating for weeks undetected. We need to get these tests out. People need to know answers.”

Nathaniel Weixel, Jessie Hellmann, Jordain Carney and Brett Samuels contributed.