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Congress eyes billions in funding to fight coronavirus

Posted at 5:41 AM, Feb 28, 2020

Capitol Hill negotiations on emergency spending to combat the coronavirus outbreak are likely to produce a bill that’s double or even triple the $2.5 billion plan requested by President Donald Trump just days ago.

Lawmakers and aides involved in the talks say they are proceeding well and are likely to produce legislation in the $6 billion to $8 billion range. Both the Democratic-controlled House and GOP-held Senate are eager to complete work on the measure in the next two weeks.

All sides say the $2.5 billion White House coronavirus plan — of which only $1.25 billion would be new funding — is inadequate. And Trump himself appears to be in no mood to pick a fight on the issue with Democratic rivals like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York.

“Congress is willing to give us much more than we’re even asking for,” Trump said Wednesday . “That’s nice for a change.”

Still, Trump did use the outbreak to re-air his grievances over impeachment. “Do Nothing Democrats were busy wasting their time on the Impeachment Hoax, & anything they could do to make the Republican Party look bad, while I was busy calling early boarder & flight closings, putting us way ahead in our battle with the Coronavirus,” he tweeted Thursday night.

On Thursday, Schumer and Pelosi weighed in with a roster of demands, including interest-free loans for small businesses harmed by the outbreak and reimbursements for state and local governments for costs incurred in fighting the coronavirus . Pelosi said any vaccine should be “affordable” and “developed with taxpayer dollars ... not dependent on ‘Big Pharma.’”

Schumer grabbed some headlines Wednesday by outlining an $8.5 billion plan to fight coronavirus, even as he threw his support behind bipartisan talks by the top members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees.

“He’s prioritized fighting with the White House over simply letting the appropriators do their work,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “’Fortunately, it appears we will have an opportunity to put this cynicism behind us quickly and move forward in a unified way.”

Lawmakers involved in the talks say it’s impossible to come up with a precise estimate of the funding needs at this point, giving the unknowns involved.

“Ïf a Republican president asks for money the Democrats always say it’s not enough. And if a Democrat asks for money the Republicans all say it’s too much. And they’re probably both right,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “In a more functional Congress, we would do something like the president’s number and 60 days from now we’d all get together and do a second number once we know more, but we appear to be incapable of that kind of realistic approach to legislating.”

With both House and Senate taking a recess in two weeks, and U.S. health officials warning the public to prepare for the spread of the virus , lawmakers are under pressure to approve the funding quickly.

Congress also faces a looming March 15 deadline for expiring electronic surveillance provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that are key tools in the war against terrorism. There has been some speculation that McConnell could pair the two issues together to ensure passage.

But combining the two bills could prove controversial. Pelosi and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy of California both came out against the idea.

The rush to pass funding to battle coronavirus is far different from the protracted effort four years ago to fund a fight against the Zika virus, which can cause grave birth defects. Republicans then in control of the House dragged their feet for months before a $1.1 billion bipartisan package passed as Congress adjourned for the 2016 elections.