With concern mounting over the possible spread of Ebola in the United States, members of Congress are preparing to offer additional funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and other federal agencies to help fight the disease within the U.S. and abroad.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Friday that the administration has not yet decided whether it will need to request additional funds from Congress to combat the Ebola epidemic. Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, are already making plans to open the federal checkbook if necessary, while House Republicans appear to be taking a more cautious approach.
Harkin, who heads the Labor and Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, and his staff are already engaging with the administration on what resources will be needed to fight Ebola in the U.S. and in West Africa. Those estimates will provide fodder for broader talks with House Republicans to continue funding the government when Congress returns next month.
"Areas of focus in these discussions on funding for the U.S. Ebola response include the need for resources to expand quarantine stations, train and equip health workers, test potential treatments and vaccines, and expand our response in West Africa," a Harkin aide said.
In addition to existing funding for the CDC, USAID, the Defense Department, and other agencies working to combat Ebola, Congress in September approved an additional $88 million to help the effort. That funding, which was also supported by House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., was included in the continuing resolution which easily passed both chambers before members left town to campaign.
Earlier this month, Congress also gave the Defense Department its approval to transfer $750 million in funding to help combat the Ebola outbreak.
Harkin has said he hopes to "build on" that funding in the coming discussions about an omnibus spending bill, which appropriators are working to pass before a Dec. 11 deadline. Harkin called the $88 million measure, which has helped to fund the CDC's work in West Africa and in the U.S. as well as clinical trials for drugs and vaccines, "a critical first step." But, he added, "we must do more."
"We must increase resources for CDC, not just to continue their work in the three countries most affected, but also to ramp up surveillance in the 11 countries surrounding the outbreak," Harkin said in a statement. "Here at home, we need to train doctors in what to look for, and strengthen our quarantine stations at the 20 busiest entry points to the U.S. Finally, we must fund basic research for better treatments in the future as well as clinical trials for potential vaccines and therapies that are in the pipeline now. We cannot afford to let any potential vaccine be unexplored."
A number of members in both chambers have also called on the Obama administration to institute a travel ban affecting the countries plagued by Ebola. The White House has so far argued against such a ban, but if one were approved, Congress may need to provide additional funding to the Department of Homeland Security to pay for screenings and security.
Whether Congress will grant additional funding depends on talks between the House and Senate Appropriations Committees. Although staff for both committees are working during the recess, a Senate Appropriations Committee aide said that serious talks concerning funding to fight Ebola would be put on hold until after members return in November.
As of Friday afternoon, top aides to House Republican and Democratic appropriators said they have not received any advance word on either the amount or form of any administration request for more Ebola money. But Democrats said they anticipate one soon.
A senior House Republican aide noted that Congress does not target funding for specific diseases, as a rule or by tradition, because it may run afoul of "anti-earmark" bans. But the aide said the director of the National Institutes of Health has funding flexibility across various programs. If Ebola money is a priority for the administration, said the aide, the agency could direct additional funds to that research on its own without further action from Congress.
Even so, aides said there are questions about whether any additional money to fight Ebola must be offset elsewhere in the budget, including being subject to spending caps for 2015.
As they wait for any White House request for money, House Democrats on Friday continued to call for a hearing on whether the CDC and NIH funding is adequate, in light of the threat posed by the Ebola virus. The demand has been pending for a week, with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday also joining in the call for Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., chairman of the Labor-Health and Human Services, Education Appropriations Subcommittee, to convene his panel immediately.
The senior GOP aide said that House Republicans still have no plans to schedule a hearing while Congress remains adjourned. (The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee does plan to hold a hearing next Friday on "the effectiveness of interagency coordination" in the Ebola fight.)
In a new letter Friday to Appropriations Chairman Rogers, subcommittee ranking member Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita Lowey of New York, and other Democrats pressed their concerns that budget cuts over the past four years have forced the public health infrastructure at the CDC and the Health and Human Services Department "to make do with less."
However, there is disagreement on the scope of those cuts, and the reasons for it.
Many Democrats assert that NIH funding has been cut by $1.2 billion over the past four years, before adjusting for inflation. And when accounting for inflation, they say, NIH has lost more than 10 percent of its purchasing power since 2010. The CDC program that supports state and local public health professionals working on the front lines has been cut by 16 percent over the last four years, they add, and the federal Hospital Preparedness program has been cut by 44 percent over the last four years.
But a House Republican aide disputes those figures as incorrect and misleading on the grounds they do not show the full picture or reflect total taxpayer resources dedicated to the CDC.
In addition, the aide said the enacted level of spending in 2014 for the CDC was actually $260 million above the president's own $6.64 billion request for the year. And over the last 10 years, said the aide, Congress has increased NIH funding by approximately $2.13 billion.
Democrats, for their part, respond that the president himself has had to make budget decisions that adhere to spending caps and sequestration.
Harkin has called on Congress to undo the sequestration caps—which will take another chunk out of the federal budget in October 2015—due to the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak. "With Ebola on our shores, we must lift the sequester, not double-down on it," he said.
Tom DeFrank contributed to this article