Federal health officials told a Senate committee Wednesday that the Obama administration's request for $6.2 billion in emergency funding is critical to fighting the spread of Ebola, and there were indications the proposal could win broad bipartisan support.
The money, which would be used to train U.S. nurses, scale up the nation's response abroad and speed the production of vaccines, is expected to be included in a larger spending bill lawmakers must pass by Dec. 11 to keep the federal government running into the next year.
As the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland will be a central figure in both of those efforts — likely her last legislative push as the head of the committee before she turns the gavel over to the incoming Republican majority in January.
"The situation is serious," Mikulski said during the hearing Wednesday.
"We have done this before when we have been faced with an emergency related to an infectious disease," Mikulski said, noting that lawmakers approved emergency spending to confront the avian flu outbreak in 2006 and the H1N1 flu in 2009.
"I would hope that we would follow the models that we have used in the past," she said.
Ebola has subsided as a domestic political issue after eight of the nine people in the U.S. infected with the virus made full recoveries. But the outbreak continues to ravage parts of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The World Health Organization reported Wednesday that the death toll in those three nations has risen to 5,147.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reiterated his prediction that a large outbreak is unlikely in the United States but said the additional funding remains critical.
"These resources are essential to stop the outbreak in Africa and protect us," Frieden told the lawmakers.
Senate Republicans criticized the administration's initial response to the crisis and questioned the appointment last month of White House Ebola czar Ron Klain. But GOP lawmakers did not indicate they would oppose the request and several said the proposal would be a top priority of the lame-duck session that began Wednesday.
"Given the size of the request, the slow progress in detailing plans for how the money will be spent and some of the missteps so far, I think it deserves our careful oversight and scrutiny," said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the spending committee.
"Instead of an effective response, what we've witnessed … these past few months from various agencies has been confusing and at times contradictory," he said.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who will become the majority leader in January, named the Ebola crisis one of the essential tasks Congress should address before the end of the year.
The Obama administration request includes $4.6 billion for immediate measures and an additional $1.5 billion in contingency funds in case the nature of the epidemic changes. Just over $2.4 billion would be used by the Department of Health and Human Services to bolster domestic preparedness, purchase protective gear for health staff and provide additional training at dozens of designated treatment centers.
The White House has said some of the money will be used to improve screening of incoming passengers at international airports such as Washington Dulles International Airport. Some Republicans called for a moratorium on flights from West Africa, but health officials have widely opposed that idea.
An average of fewer than 100 people a day are entering the United States from the three hardest-hit countries, said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. There are no direct flights from those countries into the United States, he said.
Thomas Eric Duncan of Liberia, the first Ebola case on U.S. soil, died last month in a Dallas hospital while two of his nurses became infected. The nurses both survived, as did Dr. Craig Spencer, who returned to New York City from treating Ebola patients in Guinea before developing symptoms. He has since been declared Ebola-free.
One of the nurses, Nina Pham, was treated at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
Duncan's family said Wednesday it had reached a settlement with the hospital that treated him. The settlement includes financial support for the family, but the amount was not revealed.
Thousands of nurses across the United States staged protest rallies and strikes over what they say is insufficient protection for health workers dealing with patients possibly stricken with Ebola.