Senate passes $8.3 billion emergency bill to fight coronavirus

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday approved an $8.3 billion House-passed emergency spending package to combat the coronavirus that has been spreading throughout the United States.

The Senate passed the legislation in a 96-1 vote a day after the House quickly and overwhelmingly passed it in a 415-2 vote and it now goes to President Donald Trump's desk. Appropriators had released details of the bipartisan, bicameral agreement only hours earlier on Wednesday.

Passage of the agreement through both chambers came after several weeks of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans and as the virus’s outbreak worsened Thursday with new confirmed cases in New York and Tennessee. California also declared an emergency over its spread and a Princess cruise ship was delayed off the shore in California because it had been linked to two cases of the illness in the state.

At least 11 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Ahead of the Senate vote Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, held a closed-door briefing with House lawmakers in the morning to discuss lab testing of the virus as many have expressed concern that the U.S. is lagging behind in testing patients.

Azar admitted that “it is a challenge if you are a doctor wanting to get someone tested,” but said, “that experience will get better over the next week and a half two weeks.”

The spending measure would provide $7.8 billion to fight the new coronavirus and include a mandatory funding authorization for $500 million over 10 years to be used toward a remote health care program.

Negotiators said it also includes a provision that would require that funds are used only to combat the coronavirus and other infectious diseases, as some Democrats feared that the Trump administration could raid the funding and use it for other unrelated purposes.

The legislation would provide more than $2 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public health funding for prevention, preparedness and response.

It also would allocate more than $3 billion to a public health emergency fund and the National Institutes of Health to research and develop vaccines, treatment, and testing of the coronavirus. The bill would also provide nearly $1.3 billion to help protect the health of Americans living abroad from the virus.

Trump had asked Congress for $2.5 billion to combat the virus, but Democrats quickly said that amount would be insufficient and noted that it called for taking money from programs for the poor. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded with an $8.5 billion proposal.

The president suggested at an event in Washington earlier in the week that he would sign whatever funding deal Congress sends him.