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Trump pushes to cut funding for COVID-19 testing and CDC in latest Senate relief package

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on July 15, 2020.
President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on July 15, 2020. (Anna Moneymaker / The New York Times)

The Trump administration has balked at providing billions of dollars to fund coronavirus testing and shore up federal health agencies as the virus surges across the country, complicating efforts to reach agreement on the next round of pandemic aid.

Senate Republicans had drafted a proposal that would allocate $25 billion in grants to states for conducting testing and contact tracing, as well as about $10 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and about $15 billion for the National Institutes of Health, according to a person familiar with the tentative plans, who cautioned that the final dollar figures remained in flux. They had also proposed providing $5.5 billion to the State Department and $20 billion to the Pentagon to help counter the virus outbreak and potentially distribute a vaccine at home and abroad.

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But in talks over the weekend, administration officials instead pushed to zero out the funding for testing and for the nation’s top health agencies, and to cut the Pentagon funding to $5 billion, according to another person familiar with the discussions. The people asked for anonymity to disclose private details of the talks, which were first reported by The Washington Post.

The suggestions from the administration infuriated several Republicans on Capitol Hill, who saw them as tone deaf, given that more than 3.7 million people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus and many states are experiencing spikes in cases.

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Although few, if any, of the administration’s proposals are likely to be accepted by Senate Republicans, the disconnect reflects a deep rift between lawmakers who have come to see approving another robust coronavirus relief package as a public health and political imperative and a White House that has been reluctant to follow the lead of the CDC or to assume responsibility for implementing a rigorous testing program across the country.

With unemployment benefits and a number of other aid measures included in the stimulus package set to expire at the end of the month, Congress is rushing to pull together the measure within the next two weeks.

The administration’s position presents an added complication to negotiations between Democrats, who are pressing for a more expansive aid bill, and Republicans, who hope to unveil a narrower opening offer for coronavirus relief as early as this week.

The White House declined to comment, and a spokesman for the Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After approving more than $3 trillion in economic relief over the last four months, the package to be considered this month is expected to be the last sweeping coronavirus relief legislation that Congress will consider before the November election.

Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, are expected to take the lead on negotiations for the White House.

Even though Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, is moving to introduce his own measure as early as this week, some Republicans remain skeptical that another coronavirus package is even needed, arguing that some of the aid approved in the stimulus law enacted in March has yet to be spent.

Both parties remain far apart on a number of critical policy areas, including whether to maintain expanded unemployment insurance benefits, which include an additional $600 per week. Democrats have said they will accept no less than the $3 trillion proposal House Democrats pushed through their chamber in May, while Republicans are eyeing closer to $1 trillion in new spending and aim to prioritize “kids, jobs, health care and liability protection,” according to McConnell.

But the suggestions from the administration, according to two officials familiar with them, also included funding priorities unrelated to the spread of the coronavirus, including constructing a new building for the FBI, a longtime priority for President Donald Trump.

The administration also suggested eliminating a proposed $2 billion allocated to the Indian Health Service, which is responsible for providing medical care to more than half of the nation’s tribal citizens and Alaska Natives, who have been devastated by the pandemic and are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

Left relatively unscathed, according to one official, was nearly $3 billion set aside for the Department of Homeland Security and close to $17 billion proposed for agriculture programs. Some senators are pushing to allocate even more aid for farmers and agriculture programs.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that discussions were just beginning and that the White House’s team remained committed to ensuring “appropriate levels across all agencies to address this crisis.”

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Led by Trump, the White House has also pushed for the inclusion of a payroll tax cut and tax deductions for dining and entertainment expenses, although members of both parties have been cool to the idea. It is unclear whether administration officials were continuing to push for such provisions in the opening proposal from Senate Republicans.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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