President Obama Tuesday submitted a request for $1.5 billion in funds to address the swine flu outbreak, trumping his administration's previous assurances that it had enough money to deal with the problem.
In a letter to the House and Senate Appropriations committees, Obama said that, after "carefully monitoring" the situation, "assessing the risk" and "out of an abundance of caution" he requested the amount be added to the pending fiscal 2009 supplemental appropriations bill that funds operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The additional funds will "allow us to address this emerging situation," he said.
At the first of several scheduled hearings on the outbreak this afternoon, Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, welcomed the decision. He had vowed earlier to provide additional funds in the supplemental. Harkin's hearing came as the Centers for Disease Control raised the number of confirmed cases to 64, with California and Indiana claiming four more. CDC officials also said that the cases include "a number of hospitalizations;" they had previously reported just one patient hospitalized.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., and Harkin had both earlier called for increased funding after $870 million for that purpose was stripped from the stimulus bill passed earlier this year. But both an Office of Management and Budget spokesman and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had said no more funds were needed.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., got no request from Napolitano when they talked to her Monday. "Her indication at this time was that she thought that everything was being done that needed to be done," Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.
Funding for programs to deal with a pandemic became a flash point Monday as several Democrats criticized moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who played a leading role in excising that $870 million from the stimulus bill earlier this year. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., whose district includes most of the state's border with Mexico, blasted what he called the conclusion in February by some Republican lawmakers that including such funding was "reckless spending" having little to do with the nation's economy.
"They came to the faulty conclusion that a pandemic outbreak would have no effect on the economic vitality of the nation, made that wrong conclusion, and stripped the money," said Grijalva. "Now we have to respond. The issue now is containment of the disease, treatment and prevention."
Collins and other Republican defended themselves against such criticism, with a Collins spokesman insisting that she has worked to strengthen the nation's preparedness for a pandemic. "During negotiations of the package, Sen. Collins always maintained that, though very worthwhile, pandemic flu research funding should go through the regular appropriations process since it did not meet the test of stimulus spending," the spokesman said in a statement. The statement also pointed out that the omnibus appropriations bill signed into law in March contains $156 million for pandemic influenza research, which is $1.4 million more than the fiscal 2008 level, and that $6.1 billion has been provided for pandemic preparedness at HHS in previous spending bills.
"There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds," the spokesman said.
Katie Sanders contributed to this report.