Whitmer calls for national strategy on testing during U.S. House hearing

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pushed Tuesday for a "national strategy" on COVID-19 testing and billions more in federal dollars to help states deal with the fallout from the pandemic during a U.S. House subcommittee hearing.

The Democratic governor, who is considered a potential running mate for former Vice President Joe Biden, criticized President Donald Trump's response to the virus but also faced critical questions from Republican lawmakers.  

Whitmer said Michigan is facing a $6.2 billion budget loss in this year's and next year's budgets, and called testing "the foundation of COVID-19 crisis response." But she labeled federal efforts on testing "uneven."

"A national strategy to ensure that we have test kits is the most important thing that the federal government really needs to take the reins on," Whitmer added.

But Republican lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg of Tipton in southern Michigan, criticized her efforts to combat the virus. The federal government "did step up," said Walberg, who noted that some businesses were still not allowed to reopen in Michigan.

"We can’t deal with the $6.2 billion shortfall if we don’t grow our own economy in Michigan," Walberg said.

Whitmer's testimony was part of a three-hour virtual hearing of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. Also appearing were Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a congressional hearing on governors' responses to COVID-19 on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

The governors laid out their varying plans for combating COVID-19 and were asked by U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, about their approaches to reopening schools in the fall.

Hutchinson, who didn't issue a stay-at-home order in Arkansas, said he is "committed" to reopening schools in the fall. Polis said he expects schools to "largely" be back. Both governors said there will be plans in place for schools to go back to online learning temporarily if new cases are found.

Whitmer mentioned a task force she formed to study how to reopen schools and said her goal is resume "some form" of in-person instruction in the fall.

U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-West Virginia, asked the most critical questions of Whitmer. He noted the more than 1,200 COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes in Michigan and allegations Whitmer made in March of vendors being told to redirect supplies to the federal government and away from states.

“These are serious … allegations," McKinley said. "Will you release the names of who those vendors were?”

Whitmer said she wouldn't go "toe to toe" with McKinley on all of his allegations, while adding that other governors had made similar statements about vendors.

Democratic lawmakers were more complimentary of Whitmer's handling of the virus that's been linked to more than 5,500 deaths in Michigan, which ranks fifth nationally for its death toll.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said the governor had taken "swift action" to flatten the curve of cases in Michigan, which once ranked third nationally for the number of COVID-19 cases. Now, Michigan ranks eighth, according to Johns Hopkins University.

On the budget front, Whitmer told U.S. House members that without more federal aid and flexibility in using existing assistance, "state and local governments will be unable to maintain existing critical support for education, public safety, and health care."

"I appreciate the federal assistance provided to states to date, but more is needed to support our response to this crisis," her prepared testimony said. "States are facing budget shortfalls that will require us to make impossible choices that will harm communities from border to border. A broader solution is needed, and Congress must come together to provide it."

Republicans at the federal level haven't been eager to start talking about a new stimulus package after passing a $2.2 trillion package in late March. But a Senate GOP leader said this week a new aid package might be passed by July, according to Politico.

The Democratic governor also said the the lack of coordination on personal protective equipment (PPE) exacerbated supply shortages nationally.

"Like with testing supplies, PPE shipments from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) have been irregular and unpredictable, and inaccurate information about what to expect has made planning difficult," Whitmer's prepared remarks said.

Whitmer and Trump, who's up for re-election this year, have frequently clashed in the past few weeks.

At one point, Trump called on state officials to "liberate" Michigan from restrictions aimed at combating COVID-19 and tweeted in March that Whitmer was "way in over her ahead."

Chris Gustafson, spokesman for Trump Victory, a committee backing Trump's re-election, tied Whitmer's appearance Tuesday to the possibility of her being Democratic presidential presumptive nominee Biden's running mate.

"While Michiganders fought COVID-19 under her draconian policies, you’d be more likely to find Whitmer participating in events with Biden, gabbing with him about snack foods or auditioning non-stop on cable news to be on the ticket," Gustafson said. "Whitmer's ambitions to be Biden's VP hurt Michiganders."

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.