The legislation was introduced on Wednesday, and the unusually swift and bipartisan action by both chambers of Congress underscored the pressure lawmakers are under to respond. The virus has provoked growing fear among many Americans, led to canceled travel plans, closed some schools and businesses, and raised fears about a U.S. recession.
Many lawmakers are also hearing from health-care providers in their districts about inadequate testing kits and other supplies as they try to prevent the virus’s spread.
The vote came as more bad news about the impact from the virus continued to rattle markets. As the Senate voted, the Dow Jones industrial average was down more than 900 points on the day, more than 3 percent. Meanwhile, California is under a state of emergency and the United States has more than 150 confirmed cases, a number that is expected to grow as testing becomes more widely available, and 11 deaths.
“In situations like this, I believe no expense should be spared to protect the American people, and in crafting this package none was,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). “It’s an aggressive plan, a vigorous plan, that’s received an overwhelmingly positive response in the House and in the marketplace.”
The legislation will pump more than $3 billion into research and development of vaccines and therapeutics; $2.2 billion to help public health agencies prepare and respond, including by boosting testing capabilities; and nearly $1 billion to procure medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.
The size of the package dwarfs the administration’s initial spending plan of $2.5 billion, which was split between $1.25 billion in new funding and $1.25 billion taken from other accounts, including a program devoted to deterring Ebola. The congressional plan is all new money.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said the administration’s initial proposal was “devoid of substance and reckless.”
“Fortunately there are those who remain in our government who are very forthcoming about the real needs,” Leahy said, praising officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and elsewhere for helping lawmakers identify areas to address in their bill.
The legislation also includes $500 million to relax restrictions on “telehealth” under Medicare, to ensure seniors can receive in-home care or consult with their doctors online as needed. It devotes resources to fighting the coronavirus overseas, including $1.2 billion for programs including humanitarian assistance abroad and emergency evacuation of State Department employees.
The legislation would allow for reimbursement of $136 million that the administration already said it was taking from other accounts to deal with the coronavirus. Also included is $1 billion in loan subsidies for small businesses, aimed at allowing the Small Business Administration to issue an estimated $7 billion in low-interest loans.
Even as lawmakers came together in an unusual show of bipartisanship on the spending bill, partisan sniping continued over the coronavirus, as House Democrats pressed administration officials in a closed-door briefing over comments from President Trump that seemed to blame former president Barack Obama for the situation.
Vice President Pence was visiting Washington state on Thursday, the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States where 10 people have died.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said on the Senate floor that her state was in line to receive $11.5 million from the bill to help its health department respond.
“I can tell you we need these funds, we need them now,” Cantwell said. “And we need other states to heed the early testing that would have been helpful in our state and now may be helpful in yours.”