What to Know in Washington: Senate to Consider Coronavirus Funds

The Senate today will consider a $7.8 billion emergency spending bill to fund the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The House passed the measure yesterday and President Donald Trump is poised to sign it.

The bipartisan bill, which the House passed 415-2, is more than triple the amount Trump last week proposed spending to deal with the virus. In addition to $7.8 billion that would be appropriated, the measure waives restrictions on a Medicare telehealth program to let recipients get remote care at a estimated cost of $500 million.

Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday at a meeting with House Democrats that the administration supports the spending bill, lawmakers said. There are more than 100 cases of coronavirus infection in the U.S., Pence also said, and 11 people have died. Total cases globally have topped 93,000.

The bill would reimburse state and local governments for the cost of preparing for and fighting the virus. It includes $3.1 billion to stockpile medical supplies and $300 million for government purchases of tests, vaccines and therapies to ensure that the poor have access.

BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 6074, Coronavirus Emergency Funds

Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) voted against the measure.

Lawmakers spent much of this week haggling over how to ensure that a coronavirus vaccine is affordable for Americans. The bill seeks to ensure that the federal government pays a fair price for vaccines, and it allows the Health and Human Services secretary to regulate the commercial price. Democrats had initially sought a stricter price cap.

Trump originally asked for $1.25 billion in new funds along with permission to take another $1.25 billion from other government social and health programs, though he said he would welcome whatever spending Congress approves.

“This should not be about politics; this is about doing our job to protect the American people from a potential pandemic,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a statement. “We worked together to craft an aggressive and comprehensive response that provides the resources the experts say they need to combat this crisis.” Read more from Erik Wasson.

Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg
Pence and members of the Coronavirus Task Force hold a briefing at the White House.

America’s Jobs Engine Braces for Virus Hit: America’s streak of robust job gains is being threatened by a spreading coronavirus that’s roiling financial markets and may exact a growing toll on the U.S. economy. Tomorrow’s employment report is projected to show payrolls increased 175,000 in February, below January’s pace but in line with the average of the past year, according to a Bloomberg survey of economists. The unemployment rate is seen holding near a 50-year low as wages keep marching higher.

But the February data, and what they say about the labor market’s health and momentum, may already be outdated ahead of such a unique economic shock. The Federal Reserve this week cut interest rates half a percentage point in response to the growing outbreak. While the virus probably failed to dent February hiring, America’s jobs engine is unlikely to be immune to its effects. Read more from Reade Pickert.

VA Stockpiles of Masks: Some emergency stockpiles of respirator masks at the Veterans Affairs Department have deteriorated in storage and can no longer be used, according to an internal email warning that the agency’s supplies could be overestimated. The warning about problems in emergency supply caches comes after the World Health Organization said Tuesday that disruptions to the supply of personal protective equipment are endangering lives during the coronavirus outbreak. John Tozzi has more.

Happening on the Hill

Justice Roberts Chastises Schumer: U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts delivered an extraordinary rebuke of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), chastising him for making “threatening” statements about two justices during an abortion rights rally on the court’s steps. Schumer earlier yesterday said that justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh “will pay the price” if they sided against abortion access. The senator’s remarks came as the court heard arguments in an abortion case for the first time in four years.

“Threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous,” Roberts said in a statement issued by the court. Read more from Greg Stohr.

DeVos Backs Away From Rural Cuts: The Department of Education said it will back off plans to change eligibility for a rural education program after pressure from senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The lawmakers, in a letter to Secretary Betsy DeVos, said such changes would sever federal funds to more than 800 low-income rural schools and urged her to drop the eligibility changes. Over 20 senators, including McConnell, signed the letter yesterday. McConnell and one of letter’s principal authors, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), both face tough re-election challenges this fall in their states, which both have areas of rural poverty. Read more from Andrew Kreighbaum.

Telecom Network Security Mandated in Trade Pacts By Bill: Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) will introduce a bipartisan bill today that seeks to ensure trade agreements protect the security of digital telecommunications systems, including next generation 5G equipment. While the legislation doesn’t name specific foreign-owned companies, its intended targets include Chinese-owned companies Huawei and ZTE, which the Trump administration said pose a security threat to the U.S. telecommunications sector.

“Unfair trade practices of communications equipment suppliers owned or controlled by a foreign government should not be tolerated. Period,” Thune said yesterday at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing on 5G supply chain security. “If you are trading with companies—in a digital way—that have risky equipment in their networks, then I think that presents a risk for everybody,” he told reporters after the hearing. Read more from Rebecca Kern.

  • Meanwhile, Huawei said the coronavirus outbreak is making it harder to defend itself against a racketeering and trade-secrets theft prosecution by the U.S. Thomas Green, a lawyer for the China-based telecommunications giant, said at conference in the case that U.S. travel restrictions have made it impossible for Huawei’s defense team to gather evidence. The U.S. State Department last month issued a do-not-travel warning for China over the virus outbreak, and many airlines have also canceled flights. Read more from Patricia Hurtado.

Wells Fargo Blasted in House Panel’s Report: Wells Fargo’s board and regulators face fresh accusations of doing too little to address customer abuses in a report from the Democratic majority of the House Financial Services Committee ahead of a series of hearings next week. The 113-page report — titled “The Real Wells Fargo: Board & Management Failures, Consumer Abuses and Ineffective Regulatory Oversight” — was released late yesterday and is the result of a yearlong investigation of the company’s compliance with regulatory orders. The bank said it’s reviewing the report. Read more from Hannah Levitt.

NLRB Leader to Face Grilling on Hill: The federal labor board’s chairman and general counsel have been called to testify before a House Appropriations panel next week, a hearing that will mark the first congressional testimony for either official and allow Democrats to ask pointed questions about the board’s record during the Trump presidency. National Labor Relations Board Chairman John Ring and General Counsel Peter Robb are expected to appear before the panel’s Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee during a hearing scheduled on Wednesday next week, according to sources familiar. Read more from Hassan A. Kanu.

Elections, Politics & Policy

Down Ballot Democrats Excited: House Democrats facing tough re-elections awoke yesterday with renewed optimism after former Vice President Joe Biden surged ahead in the presidential primary. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) still has a path to the nomination—just a third of delegates have been awarded, and key states from Michigan to Florida are voting this month—but Biden’s 10-state win Tuesday stirred renewed confidence among endangered Democratic incumbents on the Hill that the party’s standard-bearer will be more palatable to swing voters in their districts.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who represents a district Trump won in 2016 and endorsed Biden in January, said yesterday that “anybody in a competitive district is exhilarated by the huge win the vice president delivered last night.” Read more from Emily Wilkins.

Sanders Calls Race Against Biden a ‘Conflict of Ideas’: Sanders went on the offensive against Biden yesterday, framing the primary fight for the Democratic nomination as a “conflict of ideas” that pits his outsider campaign against the political status quo. Speaking the day after a disappointing performance on Super Tuesday, Sanders struck a defiant tone, railing against the political establishment and the media. He stuck closely to his core message and did not seek to moderate it to invite more supporters into his campaign.

“Joe and I have a very different voting record,” Sanders said at the news conference. “Joe and I have a very different vision for the future of this country. And Joe and I are running very different campaigns. And my hope is that in the coming months, we will be able to debate and discuss the very significant differences that we have.” Read more from Tyler Pager and Jennifer Epstein.

Biden Decries ‘Negative Attacks’: Biden yesterday urged his opponents to keep the race positive as it intensifies, an implicit rebuke of Sanders’s aggressive response to the former vice president’s victories. “What we can’t let happen is let this primary turn into a campaign of negative attacks,” Biden said in a brief statement to reporters in Los Angeles. “The only thing that can do is help Donald Trump and it doesn’t do anything to help any one of the candidates who are left in the campaign.” Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

Ocasio-Cortez Promises to Back Nominee: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is all in for Sanders, but she’s not going to tear the Democratic party apart over it. “I am supporting Bernie Sanders until the end,” said Ocasio-Cortez, a top Sanders surrogate. “But at the same time, I also am committed to supporting the nominee, whoever that might be.” Read more from Laura Litvan and Daniel Flatley.

NSA Chief Touts Super Tuesday Defense: An intensive U.S. government effort to protect the Super Tuesday primaries from foreign interference made efforts in the 2018 midterm election look “like a pick-up game,” according to Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. On Tuesday, the largest voting day of the Democratic presidential race, Nakasone said his team gathered at 6 a.m. and joined a “chat system” with other agencies such as the Pentagon, Homeland Security Department and the U.S. intelligence community, Nakasone said at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing yesterday. Read more from Alyza Sebenius.

Online Tools Seek to Cut Through Disinformation: Social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have made efforts to crack down on disinformation campaigns in recent years, as U.S. intelligence officials have warned that adversaries are using influence operations to sow chaos and undermine faith in democracy. But the companies have also been clear that they don’t want to become arbiters of truth. As a result, a collection of private companies, advocacy organizations and universities, such as Indiana University Bloomington’s Observatory on Social Media, have stepped up efforts to fight disinformation and developed their own tools to track it, some of which are available to the public. Read more from Alyza Sebenius.

Around the Administration

Governing Presidential Transitions: A new slate of procedures for easing the transition from one presidential administration to the next will require agencies to have plans in place by Sept. 15 for filling all top leadership jobs, not just the head position. That requirement was one of several mandates for U.S. agencies included in a bill (S. 394) that Trump signed into law on Tuesday. The bill, known as the “Presidential Transition Enhancement Act,” moved easily through Congress, passing the Senate by unanimous consent in August and clearing the House by voice vote on Feb. 5. Read more from Cheryl Bolen.

U.S. Delays Changes to Economic-Data Release: The U.S. Department of Labor again postponed a deadline for removing computers from the secure room where journalists get pre-release access to major economic reports, saying it will consider input on the issue while working on possible changes. The delay, a second one in less than a month, followed concerns raised by a coalition of media organizations that the department’s proposal would limit the wide distribution of key economic data to the general public. Read more from Steve Matthews.

Taliban Deal Results Said Mixed: The U.S.-Taliban peace agreement has been disrupted but not shattered by small-scale attacks that aren’t aimed at American and allied forces, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said yesterday. “The Taliban are honoring their piece” of the accord signed on Saturday in Doha “in terms of not attacking U.S., and coalition forces but not in terms of sustaining a reduction of violence,” Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday. In spite of the attacks, he said, “the critical thing in the next two days will be getting the conditions set for talks” between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Read more from Tony Capaccio.

Russian Missile Feud Won’t Block U.S. Help to Turkey in Syria: Turkey’s purchase of an advanced Russian missile system won’t block the U.S. from helping its NATO ally in its fight against Russian-backed Syrian forces, the American envoy for Syria said today. “There is no unanimity in D.C. on what to do and how fast to do,” James Jeffrey told a conference in Istanbul on the conflict in Idlib, the last Syrian rebel stronghold, where Turkey is trying to halt an offensive by Russian-backed Syrian government troops. Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile-defense system is “a serious concern for the U.S. Congress and for our defense establishment and Trump,” he added. “We’re looking at ways to work around that.” Read more from Onur Ant.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zachary Sherwood in Washington at zsherwood@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com