The Senate reconvenes in Washington this week to confirm executive and judicial nominees, while the House remains on recess with plans to return in two weeks. In the meantime, the House Energy and Commerce (E&C) Committee, as well as others, are preparing to hold virtual bipartisan “Committee Forums” in place of traditional in-person hearings to conduct oversight of the federal government’s coronavirus response.
The fight for state and local government funding continues to brew, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) appearing more amenable to provide additional coronavirus relief to states and localities as long as certain liability protections for employers of frontline workers are included. Still, agreeing on an amount remains challenging, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has signaled state and local governments may need almost $1 trillion in support – an amount well over the initially appropriated $150 billion in the Coronavirus Relief Fund. She also floated the idea funding would be allocated in “three tranches” – providing relief at the state, county, and municipal levels.
Speaker Pelosi has also indicated that she wants “CARES 2” to include infrastructure provisions, addressing their priorities to support community health centers, expand broadband access, and ensure clean water access regardless of ability to pay. The House Democratic Plan to Connect All Americans to Affordable Broadband Internet, which would invest $80 billion over five years to expand broadband access, as well as the infrastructure framework unveiled earlier this year will likely serve as a blueprint for forthcoming legislation. While President Trump continues to support the inclusion of infrastructure funding, he stated that he will not support a CARES 2 package unless it includes a payroll tax.
E&C Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) recently circulated to members key legislative policies that would bolster the public health response. They include requiring the Trump administration to develop a comprehensive testing plan as well as a plan to deploy treatments or vaccines when available; requiring health care facilities to publicly report their inventory of medical supplies and personnel capacity; providing federal funding for states and localities to conduct surveillance and contact tracing; and requiring coverage of COVID-19 testing and treatment with no cost-sharing for the insured and uninsured.
These policies will likely be informed by the forthcoming Committee forums, which will feature senior administration officials from the CDC, NIH, FDA, FCC, FTC, DOE and potentially subject matter experts. There may also be an effort to hold a virtual full committee markup to clear out the backlog of bills that have been sitting in the subcommittees. However, it may have to wait on the Hoyer-McCarthy deal to allow proxy voting which appears close, as members are not thrilled to return to Washington given the health risks.
On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies will hold an in-person hearing on the federal government’s COVID-19 response. To the chagrin of House Democrats, the White House blocked Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allery and Infectious Diseases and a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, from testifying. Instead, Dr. Tom Frieden, President and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives and former Director of the CDC, and Dr. Caitlin Rivers, Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, will provide their expertise. Of note, the White House is allowing Dr. Anthony Fauci to testify before the Republican-controlled Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on May 12.
On Thursday, the Senate HELP Committee will also convene in-person and hear from Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Dr. Gary Disbrow, Acting Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), about the newly launched Rapid Accelerate of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative. Envisioned by Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO), the “shark-tank” like effort funded in the most recent coronavirus relief package aims to make COVID-19 tests available to all Americans by August 2020. Scientists and inventors will compete for a share of up to $500 million over all phases of development and have the opportunity to be matched with technical, business, and manufacturing experts to accelerate the development and commercialization of their COVID-19 testing technologies.
The newly formed House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, charged with conducting oversight of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, may also meet this week. Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the Chair of the Select Committee, noted they would focus on “testing, contact tracing, isolation, and the treatment.”