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Trump officials clash with senators over coronavirus response

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During a separate Senate Appropriations hearing Tuesday on the Fiscal 2021 homeland security budget, Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) criticized acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for not providing enough information about risks from the outbreak. “You’re supposed to keep us safe, and the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus, and I’m not getting them from you,” Kennedy said.

Trump, who has sought to downplay the coronavirus risk, during a news conference in India Tuesdayappeared to claim that the United States was “very close” on a coronavirus vaccine. However, Republican and Democratic senators after the briefing said a vaccine, under the best scenario, was at least a year to 18 months away. The White House later said the president was referring to Ebola vaccine, which the Food and Drug Administration approved two months ago.

Senate Republicans leaders are still debating how quickly to process the request, with funding for several other health programs due to expire in May. An emergency package could be approved as early as next month, if circumstances warrant.

“It’s going to be done in a fairly timely way, it’s just what the context might be and what might move with it,” said Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

The emergency request proposes using unspent money, including hundreds of millions of dollars approved in Fiscal 2020 to fight Ebola. In total, the administration is seeking just $1.25 billion in new spending, relying on extra budgetary flexibility to unlock the rest.

Several senators at the briefing said the administration pointed to the opportunity for more rounds of funding to address the outbreak through vehicles such as a year-end spending package, noting the emergency request was for more immediate needs in the current fiscal year. The officials from the Health, State and Homeland Securitydepartments included FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, National Institutes of Health infectious disease scientist Anthony Fauci,Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat and Robert Kadlec, assistant HHS secretary for preparedness and response.

But some Democrats said the fast-evolving nature of the outbreak could necessitate a quick and expensive response, especially if there is a significant outbreak in the United States.

“There is every possibility that with this virus, because it is so transmittable, we will need to go from containment, where we are now, to mitigation. And then we would need more resources,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

Jennifer Scholtes contributed to this report.

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