WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump tries to move on from the coronavirus, Congress is rushing to fill the void and prepare the country for the long fight ahead.
Jolted by the lack of comprehensive federal planning as states begin to reopen, lawmakers of both parties, from the senior-most senators to the newest House member, are jumping in to develop policies and unleash resources to prevent a second wave.
In the House and Senate, lawmakers are pushing sweeping proposals for a national virus testing strategy. One seasoned Republican wants a war-like public health fund. A New Jersey freshman launched neighboring colleagues on a regional bipartisan task force to help guide Northeastern states back to work.
“This is going to be on us,” said Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., a former Navy helicopter pilot in her first term in Congress.
The legislative branch is stepping up in the absence of a consistent, convincing White House strategy, in much the way governors have been forced to go it alone during the nation’s pandemic response.
Congress is preparing its fifth coronavirus aid package, a “Rooseveltian” effort, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York put it. It’s a Democratic-heavy plan that wary Republicans are watching, despite support in the party for some provisions.
Unlike the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when President George W. Bush called on Congress to create a Department of Homeland Security, or during the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation to the New Deal, Trump is not seeking a legacy-defining accomplishment in the heat of national crisis.
Instead, Trump has turned the life-and-death decision-making away from the federal government and onto the states for the next phase of the response. He expects governors to arrange virus testing systems and find their own medical gear, saying the federal government is a “supplier of last resort.” The White House coronavirus task force has abandoned daily briefings.
Encouraging the economic rebound, Trump said Thursday he’s looking forward to “getting on with it.”
“When the nation is in the middle of the major, historic crisis, the norm is that both branches focus on the issue,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public policy. “It’s not normal for the president to just move on. ”
The administration issued guidelines for reopening state and local economies, but shelved a more detailed 17-page report from the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
New projections say the death toll could essentially double this summer, from 70,000 as of Friday to 134,000 by early August, as states loosen stay-home restrictions, according to a model from the University of Washington.
“It is lot for Congress to take on,” Andy Slavitt, a former federal health official, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Friday.
“There’s never been a greater time when Americans need the support of Congress and their state and local leaders.”
As the Senate resumed this past week while the House stayed largely away, lawmakers drilled into pandemic policy.
Tom Frieden, a former CDC director, outlined a 10-point strategy in testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee.
“As bad as this has been, it’s just the beginning,” Frieden warned of the long wait ahead for improved treatments and an eventual vaccine.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the committee, was particularly interested in Frieden’s proposal for a new public health fund modeled on those Congress uses to pay the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, separate from budget caps.
“There needs to be a whole big plan,” said Cole.
On the other side of the Capitol, an exasperated Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., grilled officials about the national testing strategy she has pushd since early March.
“We can’t reopen our country safely,” she said, until tests are “are fast, free, and everywhere.”
Health officials say a robust national testing effort, with the ability to trace the contacts of those who have been infected — so those people isolate and prevent spread — should be central to any plan returning Americans to work. Several lawmakers want the federal government to hire out-of-work Americans into an “army” of the estimated 300,000 public health workers needed for the job.
To ensure enough medical supplies, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., wants to wrest manufacturing away from China with “Buy American” rules to kick-start domestic industry.
While many of the proposals coming from Congress are bipartisan, pushback is strong from some corners.
Conservative Republicans in particular resist a robust federal government intervention, preferring a state-by-state approach. Many share Trump’s view that “the remedy can’t be worse” than the disease, as record Americans are out of work. Trump will need to sign any legislation into law.
At the House hearing, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., an anesthesiologist, argued that indefinite stay-home orders make no sense.
“We’re safer from death if we’re not born,” he said.
Cole, a former history professor, said Trump is constrained by the built-in balance between Washington and the states, which ensures “50 laboratories” as states try different options for confronting the virus.
“We’re going to know pretty quick whether or not these guys starting up early are right,” he said.
Weeks ago, Sherrill, the first-term Democrat, grew frustrated during a briefing about the lack of protective equipment for front-line workers.
“We’re not where we need to be,” she said. “So the question comes up: Why?”
She launched the five-state task force that’s trying to stand up mobile virus testing at work sites and get gear to health offices.
Much the way governors have formed compacts with neighboring states, lawmakers often agree there’s no one-size-fits-all approach despite the need for robust federal role to ensure equitable outcomes for Americans.
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the new House Select Committee on Coronavirus Crisis, said the pandemic poses a “stress test” for America’s federalist system.
“This period is going to be about whether we can make the Founders’ vision of federalism work,” he said at the Capitol, during “the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes.”