The stock market is plunging, hand sanitizer is vanishing from the shelves, and new travel restrictions are being imposed every day as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States. However, even as the crisis mounts, there is one silver lining — Congress is actually working on the issue.
In contrast to the executive branch, which has seen palace intrigue over who is actually running the Coronavirus Task Force and a Trump interview with Sean Hannity that can charitably be described as unhelpful, Congress has sped through more than $8 billion in supplemental funding this week to combat the coronavirus in a bipartisan manner.
This week, the House approved an $8.3 billion emergency aid package by a margin of 415-2 and the Senate 96-1. This bipartisan vote in the House — rare in the hyperpolarized politics of this moment — came as members avoided shaking hands, used hand sanitizer by the glop, and even, in one instance, came to the floor in a gas mask. (It was Florida Republican representative Matt Gaetz, who told a cluster of reporters afterward that it was because “members of Congress are human petri dishes. We fly through the dirtiest airports. We touch everyone we meet.” However, the stunt may have been intended more to attract journalists than to repel germs.)
The legislation appropriates more than three times as much money as Trump originally requested. At the time, Senator Chuck Schumer derided Trump’s first proposal as “dangerously inadequate” to meet the crisis. Since then, he has not hesitated in his criticism of Trump, saying Thursday that “the president dithers and tells mistruths about the coronavirus outbreak.” Still, some of the partisan heat has drained from the debate.
As Democrat representative Dan Kildee of Michigan told reporters Wednesday after a briefing from Vice-President Mike Pence — who is leading the administration’s response — Pence’s “comments seem to be pretty well aligned with where [House Democrats] are in a lot of this, focusing on testing [and] making sure that that’s in place.” Republicans had an even sunnier view. When asked his opinion on the situation, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told reporters he was feeling “as good as you could possibly feel dealing with an unknown virus.”
The vote came after Vice-President Pence spent his second day on Capitol Hill briefing elected officials on the government’s efforts against the coronavirus. On Tuesday, he conducted a briefing with Democratic senators, which Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut described as having “a healthy degree of contention.” (Washington senator Patty Murray, whose state has been at the center of the U.S. outbreak, reportedly offered particularly pointed questions.) But that briefing took place before the administration had agreed to the funding bill to combat the pandemic.
Things were apparently more subdued when Pence briefed the House. Kildee said that there were questions like “‘commencement addresses’ followed by a question mark” after the details of the supplemental-funding bill were made public.
After an early response that was furiously criticized by Democrats, including the false claim from senior White House official Larry Kudlow that the outbreak had been “contained,” the Trump administration has tried to emphasize a more professional approach with career public-health officials in more visible roles. Vice-President Pence has been put in charge of a Coronavirus Task Force, which has given daily briefings and none with the president since the initial one.
This is an indication that the administration is starting to take the situation seriously as a public-health crisis. A former HHS official with close ties to the administration told New York that “the administration hasn’t underestimated the public attention to getting this right. The fact that they are doing daily press briefings, which is anathema to their being, means they are taking this seriously and know there might be single-issue voters on this in November.” The official also noted that Trump’s absence from briefings since the first one stood out. “A lot is to protect him, but also it’s a tacit acknowledgment that he might not be best person to communicate on matters of public health.”
However, some of that progress may have been rolled back by Trump’s interview with Sean Hannity on Wednesday, when he downplayed the virus and shared his own “hunch” about the disease.
As one senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill told New York, “At the end of the day, the president is the president, and if you got experts saying one thing, what Trump says on TV can totally dwarf that … It erases progress that may have been made on the information front.” The aide added, “In times of crisis, the worst thing you can do is have unclear and contradictory messaging.”
Democrats have not been shy about criticizing the Trump administration’s response, particularly for steps like flying infected Americans back on a plane filled with uninfected passengers. However, the aide said the goal wasn’t to score partisan points but simply to get results. “The ultimate goal is not to beat up the president for its own sake but to make sure [the administration] is doing the job that we need them to do. [If] holding the feet to fire is required, then we’re going to do it. If giving them the thumbs up and saying okay is required, we’ll do that too.”
But even while Democrats are carefully balancing the carrot and stick, perhaps their best surrogates on the topic — former public-health officials in Congress — have been measured in statements about the administration’s response.
Donna Shalala, the HHS secretary in the Clinton administration who now represents South Florida on Capitol Hill, told reporters of the response: “It’s just the beginning, These are hard things to do. I’m not so critical about this. Did we stumble out of the blocks? We always stumble out of the blocks.” She went on to emphasize the need for long-term funding to combat future threats, such as “viruses where we don’t know their names.”
Lauren Underwood, a nurse who served in the Obama HHS, echoed this. She praised Tony Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert in the federal government, for the response and said, “We want the president to be successful” in combating the pandemic. She touted the constructive role Congress can play, noting her push to get Robert Wilkie, the Veterans Administration secretary, to proactively communicate about the disease to those who receive medical care from the VA.
But there is plenty of time for Democrats to make this a political issue. The election is eight months away — more than a lifetime in an era when Joe Biden can go from a has-been to the likely nominee in the blink of an eye. But, for now, the goal seems to be to take whatever steps are necessary to avoid having the coronavirus still be a public-health issue in November and to let the politics take care of themselves.