That news and the angst on Capitol Hill is threatening to overwhelm the messaging from President Donald Trump and some of his aides, who have been trying to downplay the situation in hopes they can put a lid on the stock market tumble and cable news coverage of mounting deaths around the world.
Trump’s advisers and political allies are increasingly concerned that a botched response could hurt the U.S. economy and put his reelection prospects at risk. Public health and other administration officials fielded questions from more than a dozen senators for about an hour while HHS Secretary Alex Azar and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf faced sharp criticism at a pair of Senate budget hearings.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at Azar’s hearing accused the administration of making a “low ball” request.
“It could be an existential threat to a lot of people in this country,” warned Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “So money should not be an object. We should try to contain and eradicate this as much as we can, both in the U.S. and helping our friends all over the world.”
At the homeland security budget hearing, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) criticized acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for not providing enough information about risks from the outbreak. “You’re supposed to keep us safe, and the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus, and I’m not getting them from you,” Kennedy said.
Trump, who has sought to downplay the coronavirus risk, during a press conference in India Tuesday appeared to claim that the United States was “very close” on a coronavirus vaccine. However, Republican and Democratic senators after the briefing said a vaccine, under the best scenario, was at least a year to 18 months away. The White House later said the president was referring to the Ebola vaccine, which the FDA approved two months ago.
White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told CNBC on Tuesday the United States has “contained” the threat posed by the outbreak. The statement came as stocks continued to plummet after suffering their worst day in two years on Monday amid fears that the coronavirus could mushroom into a pandemic. But Kudlow suggested that the virus’s impact was “not going to last forever.”
Senate Republicans leaders are still debating how quickly to process the administration’s emergency request, with funding for several other health programs due to expire in May. An emergency package could be approved as early as next month, if circumstances warrant.
“It’s going to be done in a fairly timely way, it’s just what the context might be and what might move with it,” said Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
The emergency request proposes using unspent money, including hundreds of millions of dollars approved in fiscal 2020 to fight Ebola. In total, the administration is seeking just $1.25 billion in new spending, relying on extra budgetary flexibility to unlock the rest.
Azar emphasized at the hearing that the funding request, particularly the more than $1 billion that would be drawn from other health programs, was an “option,” suggesting that the administration isn’t drawing a hard line.
Several senators at the briefing pointed to the opportunity for follow-on rounds of funding through vehicles such as a year-end spending package, noting the emergency request was for immediate needs in the current fiscal year. The officials from Health, State and Homeland Security departments included FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, NIH infectious disease scientist Anthony Fauci, CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat and Robert Kadlec, assistant HHS secretary for preparedness and response.
But some Democrats said the fast-evolving nature of the outbreak calls for a quick and expensive response, especially if there is a significant outbreak in the United States.
“There is every possibility that with this virus, because it is so transmittable, we will need to go from containment, where we are now, to mitigation. And then we would need more resources,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
Jennifer Scholtes and Burgess Everett and Eli Okun contributed to this report.