WASHINGTON — Negotiators on Capitol Hill reached a Wednesday agreement hailed by members of Maine’s congressional delegation on an $8.3 billion plan to battle the spreading coronavirus outbreak threatening a shock to the economy and disruptions to life.
The measure immediately went to the floor for a brief, bipartisan debate; the House will vote on the bill later Wednesday and Senate leaders are pressing for a vote in that chamber by the end of the week. The legislation came together in little more than a week, a rarity in a deeply polarized Washington.
It more than triples the $2.5 billion plan unveiled by President Donald Trump last week. The president is still sure to sign it, which has the blessing of top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California.
“It’s time to give our public health experts and healthcare professionals the surge resources they need at this challenging time,” McConnell said.
The agreement came together after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, dropped a demand, opposed by Republicans and the drug industry, to guarantee that any vaccines and drug treatments developed with government-backed research — but manufactured by drug companies — be offered at “affordable” prices.
Instead, more than $3 billion would be dedicated to research and development on vaccines, medicines for treatment, and diagnostic tests, including $300 million for the government to purchase such drugs from manufacturers at “fair and reasonable” prices to distribute them to those who need it — which is the standard applied in the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak.
It would provide more than $2 billion to help federal, state, and local governments prepare for and respond to the coronavirus threat, including $300 million for the Centers for Disease Control’s rapid response fund. Another $1.3 billion would be used to fight the virus overseas.
Almost $1 billion would provide medical supplies and other preparedness steps like $350 million to aggressively go after the virus in “hot spots” like Washington state, $500 million to buy drugs, masks, and other medical supplies for states, local governments and hospitals, and $100 million for community health centers. It would devote $500 million to Medicare for remote “telehealth” consultations that would permit sick people to get treatment without visiting a doctor.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation on the Senate and House appropriations panels reacted to the proposal largely for what wasn’t in it: a Trump-proposed transfer of $37 million from a heating assistance program for low-income people. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said she negotiated to keep that money where it is.
“This bipartisan funding bill demonstrates that both Democrats and Republicans agree that we need a fully-funded, coordinated government response to confront the [coronavirus] epidemic,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District.
The agreement comes as the outbreak in the U.S. appears increasingly likely to affect workers who are instructed to stay home, immigrants who may fear seeking treatment because they are in the U.S. illegally, and the potential rapid spread among homeless people. Widespread school closures are possible as well.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is coordinating the administration’s response, returned to Capitol Wednesday afternoon to separately brief House Democrats and Republicans. Top congressional leaders also met to discuss what additional steps may be needed to ensure the safety of the Capitol complex for lawmakers and staff and an influx of visitors this spring.
Separately, the Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday it is providing $35 million to 28 states and localities to help their public health departments respond to the outbreak and also increase their surveillance for the virus.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.