But late Wednesday at a press conference, President Trump signaled a willingness to dramatically increase his budget request if lawmakers were willing to allocate more money. This showed a new flexibility that other officials had refused to publicly adopt.
“We’re getting far more than what we asked for and the best thing to do is take it. We’ll take it,” Trump said.
The back-and-forth took place as U.S. officials disclosed that there are now 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said a new case was verified on Wednesday, bringing to 15 the total of people who have the virus but don’t fall into a category of evacuees from abroad. He said officials were still investigating how the person contracted the virus. The 60 cases also includes 42 people who were traveling on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, and three evacuated from Wuhan in China. As of Tuesday, the number of people from that cruise with the virus was 40, but two more were recently added.
With the number of cases rising and public concern mounting, government officials are under growing pressure to formulate a concrete response plan.
Lawmakers also pressed Azar on a Politico report that the White House was considering appointing a coronavirus “czar” to run the response. Azar, who is head of the president’s coronavirus task force and was in charge of the response, pushed back on the report and said he did not anticipate a czar. But later on Wednesday Trump announced that Vice President Pence would be in charge of the response, stressing that he does not view Pence as a czar but that everyone would report to him.
“I’m having everybody report to the vice president. I don’t view Mike as a czar. Mike is part of the administration,” Trump said.
In recent days, White House and Trump administration officials involved in the response have sent mixed messages to lawmakers and the public. Some health officials urged more public preparedness, while a number of White House political appointees have sought to play down any risks. Azar himself revised his message Wednesday after declaring at a morning hearing that “from a public health perspective we technically are in a state of containment in the United States.”
Several hours later, delivering his opening statement before a different congressional committee, Azar disclosed that he had just learned of the new confirmed case. While insisting risks remained low, he did not repeat his “state of containment” comments from earlier.
“As of this morning we still had only 14 cases of the novel coronavirus detected in the United States involving travel to or close contacts with travelers. Coming into this hearing I was informed that we have a 15th confirmed case the epidemiology of which we are still discerning,” Azar told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee at an afternoon hearing.
Noting three cases among Americans repatriated from Wuhan, and 42 from the cruise ship, Azar added: "While the immediate risks to the American public remain low, there is now community transmission in a number of places including outside of Asia which is deeply concerning. We are working closely with state and local and private sector partners to prepare for mitigating the virus’ potential spread in the United States as we expect to see more cases here.”
The disconnect between the White House and Congress appeared large, however. Congressional aides said assembling the emergency spending package could take some time, in part because they don’t have a firm assessment of what is needed.
The White House on Monday evening requested $1.25 billion in new funds to deal with coronavirus and permission to reroute an additional $535 million from an account that was designated to deal with Ebola. While White House officials were preparing their request, Azar had advocated for significantly more money but the precise amount was unclear, four people briefed on the talks said. On Wednesday, Azar defended the formal request made to Congress and said the request had his “complete and full support.” A senior administration official said there were not disagreements between HHS and the White House about the budget request.
Still, Trump administration officials have signaled to lawmakers that they knew their request would need to grow, according to a Senate aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe discussions with the White House.
Democrats and a number of Republicans have decried the White House request as insufficient and are aiming for a more robust package but they are still surveying what levels of funding are necessary. Congress appropriated $5.4 billion to deal with Ebola in 2015 and $7 billion for the H1N1 virus in 2009.
“Bipartisan, bicameral meetings to work out the details of the coronavirus supplemental will begin today,” a House Democratic aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the process. “The strong desire of all four corners is to assemble a bill that robustly funds pandemic response and can earn bipartisan support. Given that we have received virtually no information from the Trump administration, we are still assessing what amount of funding is needed.”
The “four corners” comment refers to the four top congressional appropriators, two Democrats and two Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D.-N.Y.) on Wednesday proposed an $8.5 billion spending plan, although it hadn’t yet received support from House Democrats. Asked about Schumer’s plan, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday morning, “I haven’t seen it, but I’m glad that it’s ambitious.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said a $2 billion spending bill was likely insufficient and instead suggested a package of around $4 billion.
Given the breadth of the outbreak, administration officials believe they need more money for additional testing capacity to identify cases of the virus, development of a vaccine and treatments for the disease, more personal protective equipment and money for states to quarantine people and respond to and treat cases.
The political scramble comes amid increased finger-pointing between the White House and Democrats over the response to the pneumonia-like virus. Democrats and some Republicans have said the White House should move more aggressively to pursue funding to aid in the response. And some Democrats have also attacked a 2018 move by the White House to disband its a global health security team responsible for dealing with deadly pandemics. Then-national security adviser John Bolton dismissed the group as part of a streamlining effort.
President Trump has sought to repeatedly downplay the virus, saying the impact in the United States is expected to be minimal and complaining that the stock market’s recent fall is the media and Democrats’ fault.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), House majority leader, said House appropriators were trying to determine from Azar and others in the administration what is needed in their response efforts, but disagreed with the administration’s budget request so far because it uses money that is earmarked for other public health priorities.
“It’s not a serious effort by the administration to reach agreement on how we ought to go. And we’ve had a very, very hard time finding out specifically what the administration needs,” Hoyer said. “Why is fighting the coronavirus or any pandemic or any natural challenge to the American people, ought to be a bipartisan effort.”
White House officials and some Republicans have defended the administration’s response.
So far, the White House has only released some information about how they would use more funding to combat the novel coronavirus, which is named covid-19. The money they have requested includes $1 billion to develop a vaccine to treat the disease, a White House official said, which a top health official said would be ready for early safety tests within a month and a half, but would not be widely available for another year to year-and-a-half. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) pressed Azar on whether the vaccine would be affordable for everyone, but he said he could not make assurances about the price of the vaccine when it is available “because we need the private sector to invest.”
“The President’s priority is protecting the homeland, and the Administration is working aggressively to minimize the risk of the virus spreading to the United States,” acting White House budget director Russell Vought wrote in the Monday request.
At the House Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) told Azar that the administration’s $1.8 billion-plus emergency spending request was “unacceptable.”
DeLauro said that the amount of the request is inadequate and that the administration provides no additional information beyond a two-page document to explain where the money is coming from.
Azar told lawmakers that the administration has now spent or obligated the entirety of $105 million in an infectious disease rapid response fund that was the first pot of money available to respond to the virus and is now moving into previously announced transfers of $136 million from other programs.
He was met with bipartisan skepticism about the budget request.
While praising the administration’s overall response, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said it was not a good idea to transfer $535 million from the Ebola preparedness fund, as the administration has proposed.
“I just don’t think we should be penny-wise and pound-foolish on that,” Cole said.
Cole also asked Azar for assurances that if the $2.5 billion proves insufficient, he will return to Congress and ask for more.
“Absolutely,” Azar replied.