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Congressional Democrats press Trump to ramp up testing before reopening economy

Members of Congress joined the chorus of those saying much more testing is needed before the country can begin getting back to normal.
Image: President Donald Trump arrives for the daily coronavirus task force briefing in the Rose Garden
President Donald Trump arrives for the daily coronavirus task force briefing in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.Leah Millis / Reuters

WASHINGTON — On two phone calls with President Donald Trump, congressional Democrats on Thursday pressed him to wait until widespread coronavirus testing is available before issuing federal guidance to reopen the country economically, two lawmakers on the teleconferences told NBC News.

But the president insisted that the economy would have to be reopened before broad testing can be available, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told NBC News.

"We're probably not going to have enough time to get testing done at the level that many would like to see it before we really need to reopen the economy," Braun said after the president's teleconference with senators.

On an earlier call with House members, half a dozen members brought up the issue of testing, a Democratic member present told NBC News, including those who said testing is an important factor in economic recovery.

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was one of the members who brought up the issue, according to the Democratic lawmaker, but he struck an optimistic tone on testing, applauding Abbott Labs for working on mass production of antibody tests.

Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., was one of the members who pressed the president about testing.

"He wants to open up the economy and in fact he said that he wants to open it up with a boom," Panetta said. "And my question to him when it came my turn to talk was basically letting him know look, all of us want the economy to open up but we want to make sure we are ready to open it up."

The two teleconferences — one with a bipartisan group of House members and the other with a bipartisan group of Senators — were convened by the White House who named members for a congressional task force to help in efforts to reopen the economy. Trump spoke for a few minutes at the top of each call and then took questions from lawmakers. Vice President Mike Pence attended and answered some questions as well.

House Democrats on their call also pressed the president to ensure that health care professionals be part of the decision-making process before social distancing restrictions start to be loosened, according to one lawmaker. Pence told House members that health experts would be part of the process. And Senate Democrats also pressed the president to coordinate with governors and local officials, according to the Senate Democratic aide.

The president didn't take an aggressive tone on the call with House members, according to another lawmaker on the call. McCarthy told reporters Thursday that nearly all the members thanked the president for his handling of the pandemic.

"Almost everyone I heard thanked him from the beginning of what he was able to provide — from ventilators to the Navy ships to building hospitals in those regions and the PPE," McCarthy said.

But the tone of the call with senators was more tense. Senate Republicans expressed concern with economic damage if government officials wait too long. "We're going to have irreparable damage in terms of demand and supply destruction," Braun said.

Republicans suggested that a "rolling, smart restart" could work, reopening areas in phases. Braun said the president agreed.

But Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Tom Carper of Delaware, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona were firm about the necessity of testing, according to a Democratic aide who works for one senator on the call.

It's unclear what the congressional task force will be charged with doing. "There are certainly no guarantees this task force will be adequately empowered to right the ship," Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., said in a statement.

Members of Congress aren't the only ones urging that testing be massively scaled up before reopening the economy. Business leaders have voiced support for that as well in recent days.

Jonathan Allen and Haley Talbot contributed.