With only a few weeks left before the August recess, congressional Democrats and Republicans stand trillions of dollars apart on the next coronavirus relief package. The Administration’s priority of accelerating the reopening of the country over providing funding for COVID-19 testing is complicating negotiations within the Republican party. This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is expected to unveil Senate Republicans’ roughly $1 trillion coronavirus relief package, a proposal much more narrow in size and scope than the $3.4 trillion House-approved Heroes Act (H.R. 6800).
Senate Republicans are seeking $25 billion for states to support COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, but their efforts are meeting resistance from certain White House officials who do not want to allocate additional funding. Senate Democrats are pushing for $30 billion in emergency funding to increase nationwide testing. In a Dear Colleague letter, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Democrats would push the administration to more aggressively use the Defense Production Act and to create a national testing and PPE strategy. The Trump administration is also attempting to block $10 billion in new funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Emergency supplemental funding flowing through the CDC to state, local, and tribal health departments supports surveillance, contact tracing, testing, guidance development, and other critical public health activities.
Additional state and local aid are not expected in Senate Republicans’ relief package. Instead, the legislation is expected to include language allowing states and localities more flexibility with the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund established under the CARES Act (P.L. 116-136). Currently, Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars may be used to establish temporary public medical facilities to increase COVID-19 treatment capacity. Fund payments may also support the operations of private hospitals through grants or short-term loans.
The package is largely focused on provisions intended to stimulate the economy. According to a draft summary of the liability protections proposal authored by Leader McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), employers would be shielded from lawsuits if they comply with public health guidelines. Hospitals and health care workers would be protected from medical liability claims relating to coronavirus. Employers would only be liable for “gross negligence” and “intentional misconduct.” Sen. Cornyn has indicated that employers may choose which guidelines to implement, either federal, state, or local guidelines. Employers would also be immune to COVID-19 related litigation for “injuries arising from workplace coronavirus testing.” Democrats have expressed strong opposition to the McConnell-Cornyn proposal and are instead calling for language requiring that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issue an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect essential workers.
Other provisions include direct payments to individuals, a workplace credit to help businesses cover the cost of testing and protective equipment, an employee retention tax credit, and changes to the $600 federal unemployment benefit. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is also seeking additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, coupled with new restrictions regarding loan eligibility. President Trump is also demanding a payroll tax cut.
Senate Republicans’ proposals stand in stark contrast to Senate Democrats’ priorities. Last week, Minority Leader Schumer and Senate Democrats announced the Economic Justice Act, a $350 billion proposal that would make immediate and long-term investments in communities of color. Included among the initiatives are $40 billion to expand and improve access to community-based behavioral, mental, and primary health care providers and services; $115 billion for infrastructure, including high-speed internet and affordable housing; $15 billion to incentive non-expansion states to expand Medicaid; and $15 billion to address maternal mortality. To help offset the cost, the proposal would reprogram $200 billion of unspent funds from the CARES Act set aside for corporate lending.
In the meantime, the House will consider several other bills this week. They include two bills aimed at increasing access to affordable child care: H.R. 7027 would establish a $50 billion fund to help child care providers safely reopen and H.R. 7327 would provide $850 million to cover child care costs for essential workers and $10 billion to improve child care safety, and modify several tax provisions.
The House will also vote on the fiscal year (FY) 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (H.R. 6395). It includes a provision that would create a $1 billion Pandemic Preparedness and Resilience National Security Fund that includes: $200 million to purchase goods or services from small businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; $50 million to produce medical countermeasures against novel threats; and $750 million to support research and development efforts related to biopreparedness and pandemic preparedness and resilience.
Meanwhile, the Senate will resume consideration of its own version of the NDAA (S. 4049). The bill contains several provisions to support the military response to COVID-19 and future pandemics, including $44 million for DOD-supported vaccine and biotechnology research and a pilot program on civilian and military partnerships to enhance interoperability and medical surge capability and capacity of the National Disaster Medical System.
In addition, the House will take up its first appropriations minibus for FY 2021 (H.R. 7608). It contains funding for State-Foreign Operations, Agriculture-Rural Development-FDA, Interior-Environment, and Military Construction and Veterans Affair. The bill includes language authorizing the FDA to require the recall of unsafe prescription and over-the-counter drugs and overturning the SNAP Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWD) final rule, as well as increased funding for nutrition programs and infrastructure.
Tomorrow, executives from five pharmaceutical companies selected as finalists in Operation Warp Speed – an initiative to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics – will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The companies include AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, and Moderna. Interestingly, the witness panel is reminiscent of the Senate Finance Committee hearing last year on prescription drug pricing (at which all companies except for Moderna testified). Questions on vaccine safety, availability, and cost will likely continue to be at the forefront.
Throughout the week, both chambers will convene hearings on a range of COVID-19 related issues – including, racial health disparities among seniors in the Senate Special Committee on Aging; supply chain issues in the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade; and reopening public schools in the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. According to the Ed & Labor Committee, the Trump administration blocked CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield from testifying before the Committee.
Lastly, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation will mark-up the bipartisan Data Mapping to Save Moms’ Lives Act (S. 3152) on Wednesday. S. 3152 would direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to incorporate certain maternal health outcomes in its Mapping Broadband Health in America platform (an online platform that allows users to visualize, overlay and analyze broadband and health data at the national, state and county levels). Available health measures include diabetes, obesity, primary care physician access, poor/fair health, preventable hospitalization, and sick days. The FCC would be required to consult with the CDC to determine which maternal health outcomes should be incorporated.