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New partisan battle lines emerge over testing

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.”

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