Senate approves $8.3B coronavirus spending bill

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The Senate on Thursday passed an $8.3 billion spending bill to help battle the outbreak of coronavirus in the U.S., in a move that came less than 24 hours after the House passed the legislation and in a rare bit of bipartisanship in a deeply divided Congress.

The bill cleared the Senate 96-1, with only Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., voting against the measure, and will be sent on to President Trump’s desk for an almost-guaranteed signature, as it has the blessing of top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

Three senators – Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. – were absent from Thursday’s vote.

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Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., whose state is at the center of the crisis, praised the bill because it “will increase access for public lab testing, help pay for isolation and quarantine, help pay for sanitizing in public areas, better track the virus and those who might come into contact with it, help labs who are trying to identify hot spots, and limit exposure."

The bipartisan agreement on the bill came together after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., dropped a demand, opposed by Republicans and the drug industry, to guarantee that any vaccines and drug treatments developed with government-backed research — but manufactured by drug companies — be offered at "affordable" prices.

Instead, more than $3 billion is being dedicated to research and development on vaccines, medicines for treatment and diagnostic tests, including $300 million for the government to purchase such drugs from manufacturers at “fair and reasonable” prices to distribute them to those who need it — which is the standard applied in earlier crises like the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak.

It also provides more than $2 billion to help federal, state, and local governments prepare for and respond to the coronavirus threat, including $300 million for the Centers for Disease Control's rapid response fund. Another $1.3 billion would be used to help fight the virus overseas.

Nearly $1 billion in additional funds provides medical supplies and other preparedness steps like $350 million to aggressively go after the virus in “hot spots” like Washington state, $500 million to buy drugs, masks, and other medical supplies for states, local governments and hospitals, and $100 million for community health centers. The bill devotes $500 million to Medicare for remote "telehealth" consultations that would permit sick people to get treatment without visiting a doctor.

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“In situations like this, I believe no expense should be spared to protect the American people, and in crafting this package none was,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. “It's an aggressive plan, a vigorous plan that has received an overwhelming positive reaction.”

The agreement comes as the outbreak in the U.S. appears increasingly likely to affect workers who are instructed to stay home but don't have paid sick leave and immigrants who may fear seeking treatment because they are in the U.S. illegally, and there is the potential rapid spread of the virus among homeless people. Widespread school closures are possible as well.

The virus is spreading more widely every day, sending financial markets spiraling again Thursday, disrupting travel and potentially threatening the U.S. economy's decadelong expansion.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.