(CNN) — There is mounting concern on Capitol Hill that more needs to be done to contain the coronavirus, the contagious respiratory disease that started in China and has reached from Iran to the US, with Republicans and Democrats outwardly expressing alarm and outrage.
In a tense exchange Tuesday, Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana pressed acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf over the issue during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.
“You’re supposed to keep us safe. The American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus and I’m not getting them from you,” Kennedy said, after asking Wolf a series of pointed questions about transmission of the disease and the current level of preparation to deal with its spread.
“I disagree,” Wolf responded, and he also directed some of Kennedy’s questions to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After the hearing, Wolf spoke with reporters and defended his department’s readiness to defend against the disease, saying, “The department is extremely focused on protecting the American people from the coronavirus. And so we’re doing that. We’re implementing a number of operational measures at airports, seaports and land ports of entry. And we’ll continue to do that.”
In a Senate floor speech on Tuesday, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer accused the Trump administration of having “no plan to deal with the coronavirus” and called the current outbreak “a crisis.” His comments followed a critical tweet from President Donald Trump, who was on a state visit to India, saying that Schumer was “complaining” about his coronavirus response “for publicity purposes only.”
On Tuesday morning, officials from DHS, HHS and CDC also briefed senators about the progress of a vaccine, supply chain shortcomings and how the US braces for a potential uptick in cases within its own borders.
But Republicans and Democrats alike say that the Trump administration’s response has exposed vulnerabilities and prompted lawmakers to push for ways to curtail future outbreaks faster.
“It’s completely inadequate to the threat that exists. A real, present danger of outbreaks in the United States,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, told reporters Tuesday.
Kennedy came out of the briefing, before his subcommittee hearing, saying he was not impressed with what he heard and the chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said the outbreak had exposed some vulnerabilities in how the US stockpiles supplies that Congress may need to address in upcoming weeks or months.
“Looking ahead, we should be passing laws to make sure we have that manufacturing capability, that we have sufficient stockpiles. You know things expire. We need to be far more strategic about how we approach these things for the next potential pandemic,” Johnson said. “These are serious issues.”
Lawmakers said Tuesday that the Trump administration was gearing up for an eventual uptick in cases in the US, but without knowing how many cases there would be, it was impossible to know if the administration was ready.
“I think we’re prepared. … You never know how big the problem is going to be, so answering that is frankly impossible,” Blunt said about the administration’s preparedness.
Senators emerged from the briefing also saying that a vaccine was still a year or 18 months away from being available to fight Coronavirus.
Publicly, Trump has projected confidence in his administration’s ability to handle a government response to the coronavirus, but privately, sources familiar with the conversations tell CNN that Trump is growing frustrated by some parts of his administration’s response.
On Monday night, his administration sent a $2.5 billion supplemental spending request to Capitol Hill, but lawmakers warned that more money might be needed.
Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, told HHS Secretary Alex Azar that the emergency funding request might not be enough.
“If you low ball something like this, you’ll pay for it later,” Shelby told Azar. “I hope the administration will look at this as something they cannot afford to let get out of hand, period.”
This lines Shelby up with Democrats, who in the wake of the request have ripped the administration for not being aggressive enough to address the scope of the potential problem.
The administration’s request included $1.25 billion in new money as well as an additional $1.25 billion in funding that could be transferred from other areas.