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Coronavirus cases are surging again, and some hospitals are running short on equipment like masks and gloves. There's a little-known government agency that has quietly started to work on challenges with the stockpile. It's called the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation. And now some members of Congress are asking, why is a foreign aid agency working on a domestic issue? NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez explains.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Less than two years ago, President Trump helped create a new agency to counter China. Its mission - loan money to projects overseas, an alternative to Beijing's growing influence. So some people in Congress and other Washington insiders were stunned to hear the president say this two months ago.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This federal agency normally invests in economic development projects in other countries. I said, how about investing in our country?
ORDOÑEZ: He was in Pennsylvania at a factory that makes masks and other protective equipment. And he gave the Development Finance Corporation a new job here at home.
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TRUMP: We have to take care of America first. It's got to be America first.
ORDOÑEZ: The agency is just getting started. It will soon announce its first plan to loan money to refill the American stockpile. The money comes from a coronavirus aid package, not the agency's regular budget. But George Ingram, who worked on U.S. overseas aid during the Clinton administration, says the new role raises several red flags.
GEORGE INGRAM: The Congress was very clear in rewriting the legislation, in writing the BUILD Act, in giving the DFC a very strong development mandate that fits in with U.S. foreign policy. It did not have a domestic mandate.
ORDOÑEZ: But the agency's CEO, Adam Boehler, says the president didn't change the mandate. He just added a domestic element - a temporary one - to help fix a critical problem.
ADAM BOEHLER: My view on this is these are extraordinary times. Hopefully, it's once in a lifetime. And I think everybody, for the most part, understood why we would look to invest domestically.
ORDOÑEZ: The questions are starting to build. Last week, lawmakers in the House asked a watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, to review the change. Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey is the head of the powerful Appropriations Committee. In a statement to NPR, she said she wants recommendations from the independent GAO. She wants to make sure this new coronavirus plan doesn't jeopardize the DFC's international focus - in this case, countering China. Republicans had some question about mission creep, too.
TED YOHO: Well, that's something we worry about - you know, the overgrowth of any program. You don't want to go beyond that.
ORDOÑEZ: That's Ted Yoho, who sponsored the bill that created the agency. But he thinks that the shift is a wise move right now and will help secure vital supplies for the pandemic. Boehler says he spoke to members of Congress and understands their concerns.
BOEHLER: Are you going to lose focus? Are you going to not accomplish your mission?
ORDOÑEZ: He explained he's committed to both goals.
BOEHLER: How we were going to set it up so that we didn't lose focus and how none of the appropriated dollars for international were going to this.
ORDOÑEZ: He says a bigger threat to the agency is getting Congress to give it enough funding for the foreign projects. As for the domestic plans, Boehler says they take time. But he hopes to announce the first investments in just a few weeks, likely in the pharmaceutical space.
Franco Ordoñez, NPR News.
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