Washington (CNN)The White House is in the midst of a sharp dispute with Senate Democrats over the amount of money needed to address the threat of the novel coronavirus, even as federal health officials warn that it’s no longer a matter of “if” but “when” the US will have to grapple with a growing number of cases.
The funding dispute, along with the growing threat the virus poses, has lawmakers in both parties questioning President Donald Trump’s messaging on the issue and his administration’s ability to contain the expanding outbreak.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s $8.5 billion emergency funding proposal is significantly higher than the $2.5 billion request submitted by the administration, and the number has drawn ire from Republicans, who argue that the New York Democrat has injected politics into an area that Republicans and Democrats could have negotiated themselves.
“Nothing is out of the ballpark, but it’s not a serious effort. If he was serious about it, he would have proposed it some time ago. He waited to see what the President would do and then threw something out there,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Republican appropriator.
But even as Republican and Democratic congressional aides predict the gap on the funding level will be bridged — in a bipartisan manner — somewhere in the middle, the simmering frustration over how the White House has addressed a crisis that has infected thousands and spread to multiple countries has been on display in briefings, hearings and public statements throughout the week.
Concerns range from public health threats to economic damage, from the breakdown and availability of virus test kits and the production of needed surgical masks to the health of global manufacturing supply chains. That lack of preparedness, along with concerns that Trump himself has not been on message at a time when the public is relying on correct information, has led to palpable frustration on Capitol Hill.
For weeks, lawmakers have warned the administration, publicly and privately, that a more robust response from the White House is needed to address the fallout, aides say. The perception, particularly among Democrats, is that any requests for information are viewed by administration officials as political attacks and rejected out of hand.
The level of distrust between the White House and Democrats has been years in the making, with Democrats repeatedly citing proposed budget cuts to the agencies leading the response to the effort — none of which were enacted — as well as personnel shifts that were viewed as explicit efforts to limit the streamlined processes that have proved effective to addressing a potential pandemic.
“Decisions were made on politics and optics, rather than the informed opinion of our doctors and scientists,” Schumer said.
But the distrust has been exacerbated by stark differences in the sobering information coming directly from public health experts at agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention versus the tone struck by the President.
While Trump tweets that his administration is doing “a GREAT job” in response to the coronavirus and top White House economic officials give rosy assessments about containment, lawmakers have sat through closed-door briefings and hearings with top health officials that include ominous warnings about its likely inevitable spread inside the US.
Even close allies have warned, if gently, that the administration needs to be forthcoming about how it shares information with lawmakers.
“Responding to this particular effort not only takes a rapid response, but if we’re going to be your partners in this it takes a lot of sharing of information,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership, told HHS Secretary Alex Azar at a hearing this week. “Broad authority also includes broad responsibility to be forthcoming with information.”
Blunt, who will play a leading role in shaping how much money Congress provides the administration to fight the coronavirus, told CNN after the hearing that his comments were more a reflection of the constant tension between administrations and Congres