WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted nearly unanimously to approve $8.3 billion in emergency spending to combat the coronavirus outbreak, sending the measure to the White House for enactment.
The vote was 96 to 1. The House voted on an identical measure Wednesday and approved it 415 to 2. The Senate’s sole dissenting vote came from Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The legislation was introduced Wednesday, and the unusually swift and bipartisan action by both chambers of Congress underscored the pressure lawmakers are feeling to respond. The virus has provoked growing fear, led to travel cancellations, 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 spread.
The vote came as more bad news about the impact from the virus continued to unspool and rattle markets. As the Senate voted, the Dow Jones industrial average was down more than 900 points on the day, more than 3%. Meanwhile, California is under a state of emergency and there are now 11 deaths and more than 150 confirmed cases in the U.S., a number that is expected to grow as testing becomes more widely available.
“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 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 funds and $1.25 billion taken from other accounts including a program devoted to deterring Ebola. The congressional plan is all new money.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top 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,” said the senator from Vermont, 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 “tele-health” under Medicare, to ensure that 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 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 continued, as House Democrats pressed administration officials in a closed-door briefing over comments from President Donald Trump that seemed to cast blame on former president Barack Obama over the situation.
Vice President Mike Pence was visiting Washington state on Thursday, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., 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.”