House lawmakers on Friday finalized congressional work on a $2 trillion economic stimulus bill in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, including tens of billions in emergency funding for the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
The passage came amid an unusual House session, with lawmakers spread throughout the chamber in an attempt to avoid direct contract and possible spread of the virus. In the end, lawmakers adopted the measure on a voice vote. President Donald Trump is sign the measure into law a few hours later.
Senate lawmakers approved the massive spending measure without opposition earlier in the week. On Friday, House members said the move was needed not only to support individuals quarantined or furloughed across the country, but also to make sure federal agencies have the resources needed to continue the public response to the threat.
“We know that the magnitude of this public health emergency and the number of veterans sickened by this deadly virus are underreported,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, in a floor speech before Friday’s vote.
“It will only become more severe in the weeks to come … This funding will save veterans' lives, and protect VA’s health care providers and first responders.”
More than 80,000 individuals across America have tested positive for coronavirus, nearly all within the past few weeks. More than 1,000 people have died as a result of the fast-spreading illness.
Under the new legislation, the military poised to get $10.5 billion in emergency funds, nearly half of which is for Defense Health program and Tricare response to the public health threat.
“It provides resources vital to the military’s efforts to assist in pandemic response around the country, from deploying hospital ships to the search for a vaccine,” House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in a statement.
“It also provides resources needed to care for those in the military community who are infected with COVID-19. We need to give our military the resources it needs to get on with their important work.”
About $1.4 billion in direct funding would go to the National Guard to help pay for state deployments to respond to emerging health needs.
On the Department of Veterans Affairs side, most of the $19.6 billion in funding is assigned to direct medical care for veterans. But $3.1 billion will be set aside for new telemedicine efforts within VA, which VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in an interview with Military Times on Thursday will be significantly expanded in coming weeks.
Nearly 600 veterans under VA care have already contracted the illness, and more than 180 VA employees have also tested positive.
Lawmakers are expected to take an extended legislative break over the next few weeks, but discussions on a follow-up coronavirus response package (potentially the fourth passed by Congress since the start of the month) are expected to take place remotely over that time.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.