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Washington — Bipartisan lawmakers from Michigan are supporting a measure asking President Donald Trump "to make urgent use" of the Defense Production Act, which gives him the power to spur private businesses to produce critical supplies for treating the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our hospitals in southeast Michigan are already in crisis. There is no way they have the respirators to do their job now, and it seems almost certain they won’t have the ventilators they need within days," said U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, a Bloomfield Township Democrat who is leading the resolution

"We’re talking about who lives and who dies among people who are gasping for breath."

Under the Defense Production Act, the federal government can enter contracts with companies and require the acceptance and performance of those contracts to prioritize production of "scarce and critical material."

The law can also be used to give loans or loan guarantees to firms or industries that are called upon to help, and shield from anti-trust action companies that are cooperating with one another under a Defense Production Act directive.

But Trump has repeatedly expressed his reluctance to use the statute.  

"You know, we're a country not based on nationalizing our business," Trump told reporters Sunday at the White House.

"Call a person over in Venezuela. Ask them how did nationalization of their businesses work out? Not too well. The concept of nationalizing our business is not a good concept." 

But Trump added, "we may have to use it someplace along the (supply) chain." 

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan's senior House Republican, noted that the Defense Production Act does not "nationalize" businesses. 

"It does, however, allow the government to direct businesses to make certain supplies that are desperately needed in our fight against the coronavirus," Upton said. "The companies would remain private."

The drive for using the Defense Production Act comes as the Los Angeles Times reported that 100 million N95 respirator masks and other medical supplies maintained by the federal government were depleted by the swine flu epidemic in 2009. They were never replenished, according to the International Safety Equipment Association.

Upton and Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, and Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township are among the lawmakers helping to lead Levin's resolution. Huizenga sits on the House Financial Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Defense Production Act. 

Their resolution calls on Trump to share with Congress plans for his use of Defense Production Act powers, including targets and timelines to produce supplies needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The measure also says the House is prepared to make additional funding available to meet the needs of Defense Production Act invocation.

"I don’t understand people who talk about using this (statute) as a last resort,” said Levin, referring to Trump’s remark that he’d only use his authority in a “worst-case scenario.”

"It truly is time for a military-style operation," Levin added. "This country knows how to do logistics, and it’s time for the president to gather folks who can work with the private sector to get this done."

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, has also pushed the Trump administration to activate the president's authorities under the Defense Production Act to guide manufacturers in making and strategically allocating medical supplies to address shortages.  

Michigan nurses and other health care workers have said they don't have enough masks or protective equipment to handle the surge of COVID-19 patients in their care. 

"The bottom line is that we need to get more personal protective equipment to our medical community who are on the front lines working to keep our nation safe," Upton said.

Some businesses have not waited for a mandate from the federal government and have taken the initiative to figure out how they might help.

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. are studying the feasibility of producing equipment such as ventilators, recalling the industry's conversion to building tanks, trucks and planes during World War II.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said it intends to convert a plant in China to make and donate face masks for first responders and health care workers in the United States.

On the state level, Huizenga said he has office furniture businesses, die casters, foundries and others in his district who are getting orders for parts for respirators and other supplies. 

He hopes governors issuing stay-home orders in Michigan and other states include as "essential" workers those employees who are retrofitting plants or working to feed the medical supply chain for ventilators and other critically needed products. 

"We got to make sure that total supply chain is up and running, and what do you do to incentivize employees to come back in to work?" Huizenga said. 

With one of his businesses, he came up with the idea of a "patriot bonus." 

"These people are on the front lines coming to work, so the rest of America can stay home. How do we make sure those folks who are going into work are getting rewarded?" Huizenga said after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday issued her stay-home order

"We do need to make sure these that industries that are providing so much infrastructure toward us being able to take this three-week time out are considered critical."

mburke@detroitnews.com

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