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Hill in a Fever Over Swine Flu

Funding Gets Another Look

Congress rushed to respond Monday to the swine flu outbreak as the death toll south of the border mounted, the Obama administration urged Americans to avoid travel to Mexico, and fears of a worldwide pandemic grew.

Lawmakers were taking another look at pandemic flu funding after the Senate sliced an $870 million item from the stimulus package in February, and committees announced flu hearings for Wednesday and Thursday.

Democratic appropriators said they will try to include flu funding in the upcoming war supplemental, after Senate Republicans led by Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) blocked the money in February. Some lawmakers charged the funding was pork, and others — like Collins — deemed it an unnecessary expenditure for the economic recovery plan.

Collins defended her role, with her spokesman Kevin Kelley saying in a statement Monday that she supports increasing funding for pandemic flu even though she helped nix it from the stimulus.

Collins wielded enormous influence as one of just three Senate Republicans to back the $787 billion stimulus, and that trio demanded substantial cuts from bills that passed the House and Senate in exchange for their support. The flu funding, originally sought by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), was a high-profile casualty, one that Collins cited on the Senate floor.

“It is the regular appropriations process that is the appropriate vehicle for considering funding for many of these programs that, while worthwhile, do not boost our economy,— she said on Feb. 9. “It does not make sense to include $870 million for pandemic flu preparedness, again an issue that I care deeply about because of my role on the Homeland Security Committee.—

Obey had vehemently disagreed, arguing that a flu pandemic would dramatically weaken the economy, while spending on preparations would help stimulate the economy by increasing the U.S. manufacturing base for making vaccines and other items.

Obey said in a statement Monday that he has been trying to get more funding for a pandemic since 2005. “We are not prepared today,— he argued. “Let’s hope we don’t need to be. Because we need to become prepared as soon as possible, I intend to again request additional funds in the upcoming supplemental.—

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who heads the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of Health and Human Services, also said he would try to add flu funding to the upcoming war supplemental.

Collins’ role in striking the flu money has come under fire from left-leaning publications such as the Nation and left-wing blogs such as the Daily Kos. But the criticism hasn’t ended there.

“The fact is we had $870 million in the stimulus conference report for things like antiviral drugs, but it was dropped at the behest of people like Sen. Collins who said it was not stimulus,— a senior Democratic aide said. “HHS does appear to be well-supplied, but the fact is this was a missed opportunity to be prepared for a crisis like this.—

Kelley, Collins’ spokesman, took aim at the Maine Senator’s critics. “Claims that she is opposed to increased funding for pandemic flu research are blatantly false and politically motivated,— he said.

Kelley noted that Collins sought a $905 million increase for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund in a December 2008 letter to Senate leaders.

He also said the omnibus spending bill signed into law in March contained $156 million for pandemic flu research — albeit below the amount that Democrats had sought to include in the stimulus. And Kelley noted that Congress had previously appropriated $6.1 billion for pandemic preparedness, including stockpiling antiviral drugs for more than 50 million Americans.

“There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds,— he said. “Sen. Collins does, however, believe that it is a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services still do not have top positions filled. She hopes the Senate will move promptly to confirm Gov. [Kathleen] Sebelius for HHS secretary.—

As the attacks on Collins heated up, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) came under fire from the right for praising the deletion of the funding in a Feb. 8 article in the New York Post.

“All those little porky things that the House put in, the money for the [National] Mall or the sexually transmitted diseases or the flu pandemic, they’re all out,— Schumer was quoted as saying in the report.

The Post said Schumer’s quote came as he defended the final package as superior to the original House bill.

But Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon said his boss’ quote was taken out of context.

“This is a nice try by the right wing, but it was Democrats who tried to put flu funding in the stimulus and the Republicans who called it pork and insisted on stripping it,— Fallon said. “Sen. Schumer made a rhetorical point that even after the Democrats took out this so-called pork, the Republicans still tried to block the bill.—

The issue of the pandemic flu spending notwithstanding, Congress is pressing ahead to try to get its arms around the issue.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where Collins serves as ranking member, scheduled a hearing for Wednesday. The House Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled a subcommittee hearing for Thursday.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), meanwhile, urged the State Department to issue an advisory warning against travel to Mexico — a request that the Obama administration later obliged. Weiner also is asking what should be done to monitor public health at the country’s borders.

“Mexico is the origin of this outbreak, and we need to cut this spread off at the root by limiting travel,— Weiner said.

But Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) called for the borders to remain open.

“Closing the border does not make any sense,— she said. “Not only is it complicated but would cost the United States millions of dollars in trade and commerce. … Calls for closing the border are clearly unrealistic and may unnecessarily inflame the immigration debate.—

So far, at least 40 people in the U.S. have the swine flu, but all who have died from it have been in Mexico.

House and Senate leaders are monitoring the situation, as is the Capitol’s attending physician.

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