Republicans and Democrats agree coronavirus testing is a huge hurdle for President Donald Trump's vaunted reopening of the economy. But they disagree on what to do about it.
Democrats are pushing for a federal, centralized approach that would nationalize the distribution of millions of coronavirus tests to get people back to work and school, aiming to make it a hallmark of the next congressional response to the disease.
But plenty of Republicans say testing should be handled by states and the private sector.
The clash spilled out into the open Friday, as Senate Democrats pressed Vice President Mike Pence on testing during a heated caucus call in which Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) described it as a "dereliction of duty" for the administration to not have a national testing regime.
Even Senate Republicans pushed the administration on testing during another call with the president and Pence this week. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in an interview that he recommended that the administration focus on the distribution of tests that produce rapid results. Pence also told senators that, by the end of the month, the administration expects the production of 20 million antibody tests a month, Cruz recalled.
“They have mobilized enormous resources and have been vigorous and aggressive, but with a response to any crisis of course there are things that could have been done better," Cruz said. "It's not where it needs to be yet and so when I spoke with the president [Thursday] I urged him to do even more on testing."
The conflict over how to address stubborn test shortages comes as President Donald Trump and most congressional Republicans are pushing to re-open the economy as soon as May 1 — even as infectious disease experts warn against doing so too soon. But that might be impossible until there’s millions more tests available.
“We know the kind of testing we are doing is so inadequate for what we need to do,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
“If I were king for a day … I would concentrate on three things: testing, testing and testing,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who is itching to reopen the economy himself as the rate of infections slows in his state. “There are tens of thousands, maybe millions of people walking around with the virus without symptoms, they may never have symptoms. Unfortunately they’re contagious as hell.”
Whether states or the federal government take the lead depends in large part on how Congress legislates — and whether Republicans push Trump to federalize the testing program. And the argument highlights the central question facing the country: How to make people comfortable enough to resume daily life and avoid an economic depression while still limiting the spread of the deadly virus.
Delays in reaching consensus on testing could further stall businesses from reopening and even exacerbate the spread of the virus.
Amid the partisan clash over an interim relief package for small businesses, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Democrats are now insisting on $30 billion for a national testing plan. They argue that individual states are not equipped to provide the widespread testing needed, and the federal government should have more control over the medical equipment supply chain to avoid relying on other countries.
That spending ask comes on top of additional money from the three previous rescue packages that was allocated toward testing, including federal dollars for a coronavirus vaccine and provisions that ordered insurers cover the cost of tests for their customers, while Medicaid would fill in for the uninsured. The most recent spending package included $150 billion to assist hospitals and providers, some of which is intended for more testing. The package also included $4.3 billion for federal, state and local public health agencies responding to the virus.
“We’re testing right now about 150,000 tests a day in the United States and experts tell us we should be looking at at least 500,000 a day in order to know who is well and safe to go back to work, and who needs to be quarantined,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). “Our federal government needs to play the lead.”
Republicans, however, argue that private companies are best suited to find an innovative solution to the testing debacle, not the federal government. In addition, they say Congress already spent money on testing in the previous spending packages and should see the results before spending more. Meanwhile, Trump said Friday that governors are responsible for testing.
“The key is going to be: How fast actually can the private sector ramp up testing?” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). “It's not going to be the government doing it. It's the private sector doing it. They're the ones that do this well. And so how fast can they ramp it up?”
But working with the federal government is also inevitable. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said that while hospitals in Pennsylvania are capable of developing their own test kits, they still need material from the Centers for Disease Control to develop tests.
Moreover, the GOP argues regulations have hindered the production of tests. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is pushing a Manhattan Project-style effort to expand testing, said that if Trump is being blamed for the slow-footed testing response, then so should Congress.
“The major reason we don’t have enough tests is because Congress and the Food and Drug Administration have restricted development of tests by everyone except the Centers for Disease Control,” he said. “Let’s just say that’s everybody’s fault.”
But Democrats squarely blame Trump for a botched testing rollout earlier this year and a slower ramp-up than other countries like Germany, which is beginning to reopen its economy in part on the strength of its testing regime.
The White House on Thursday rolled out its own vision for reopening parts of the country in three phases. The guidelines, however, don’t include a wide-scale plan for testing.
Nevertheless, Alexander’s advocacy for dramatically expanding testing may be rubbing off on some of his Republican colleagues. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said that Alexander's internal lobbying to raise the issue of testing made an impression with him.
“The question everybody’s going to be asking is: What’s an acceptable level of risk? And we’re not going to know that until we figure out who has it and who doesn’t,” Thune said. “This testing issue has got to get solved. .. We ought to be putting a lot of resources on that because lord knows we’re spending on a lot of money on other stuff.”