Don't expect even a brewing international flu crisis to silence partisan rancor inside the beltway. With hospitals in Mexico, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, and the United States confirming that patients have contracted swine flu, lawmakers in Washington continue to lob accusations across the aisle.
The first salvo, appropriately, came over the issue of pork. Two months ago, lawmakers were fixated on pork barrel spending—or the massive economic stimulus package, depending on which side of the aisle they occupied. Republicans voted against the $787 billion stimulus bill despite an attempted compromise that stripped out millions of dollars in spending, including $870 million for pandemic flu preparations.
Slicing that particular program has sparked a flurry of attacks against legislators from both parties. Republican Sens. Susan Collins, David Vitter, and Arlen Specter were each singled out by liberal blogs for having publicly opposed the flu preparedness funding proposal. Bloggers pointed to an April op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by top Bush adviser Karl Rove decrying among other things the "$462 million for the Centers for Disease Control, and $900 million for pandemic flu preparations."
Conservatives fired back, noting that several Democrats, including New York Sen. Charles Schumer, opposed the inclusion of the flu funding in the stimulus legislation. "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 said at the time, trumpeting his efforts to placate the opposition. The remark is particularly awkward for Schumer with dozens of New York schoolchildren in Brooklyn suffering from mild cases of the disease.
Still, many Democrats were quick to hammer the GOP voting record on flu preparedness after the swine flu outbreak. "We have been trying to get adequate funding to prepare the nation for a pandemic outbreak since 2005," said Rep. Dave Obey, the Democratic head of the House Appropriations Committee, who proposed the funding in the House version of the stimulus legislation. "We tried again as recently as January in the economic recovery package. Whether or not this influenza strain turns out to have pandemic potential, sooner or later some strain will."
Yet, under the Bush administration, Congress allocated more than $6 billion to stockpile drugs for just such a disease. Moreover, years of emergency drills for terrorist attacks have made U.S. hospitals more prepared for such a public-health crisis should one arise, experts note.
Indeed, Bush pushed hard to boost the nation's flu defenses. He grew concerned about a possible pandemic after reading an account of the 1918 flu outbreak by author John Barry. The book, The Great Influenza, proposed several remedies to prevent future outbreaks, including a national response plan that Bush later urged. Democrats have supported those efforts in the past.
Few legislators, of course, have gone on the record against funding things like flu preparedness writ large. Indeed, billions have been spent preparing for flu pandemic outbreaks since the SARS and bird flu outbreaks several years ago. Responding directly to blog reports yesterday, Collins said in an interview that she simply felt that the stimulus bill was not the best place for funding such efforts.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee, where Collins is the ranking member, announced a hearing slated for tomorrow on the country's response to the flu outbreak. Other congressional committees also announced hearings.
This isn't the first time the GOP has taken flak over recent efforts against government spending. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, responding to President Obama's original call for a stimulus bill this spring, mocked the inclusion of volcano monitoring in the bill. Alaska's Mount Redoubt—a likely recipient of federal monitoring money—erupted one month later.