WASHINGTON -- Amid nationwide protests over police tactics, intense scrutiny of an expansive immigration policy and growing concern about military strategy in the Middle East, President Barack Obama will drive 10 miles northwest on Tuesday to discuss a crisis that’s largely slipped the public consciousness. Appearing at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, he will reacquaint America with Ebola.
According to the advisory for the event, a portion of the president's remarks will be devoted to praising work done by the medical research community in combating the deadly virus -- including slowing the growth rate of infections in West Africa, treating patients in the United States and conducting a Phase 1 clinical trial for a promising vaccine. But the visit won’t be an exclusively celebratory affair. The president, according to aides, is traveling to the NIH's bucolic Bethesda campus because the proverbial clock is ticking on a biomedical emergency that remains unresolved. With just days to go before Congress must fund the government, fears are mounting that the administration’s request for billions of dollars to help combat Ebola will go underfunded or even unaddressed.
“I think in some ways Ebola has receded from the front page of the papers, but now is not the time to let down our guard,” a senior administration official said of the president’s speech. “That’s one of the messages you would be hearing from the president. Now is the time to double-down on our efforts and make progress.”
The story of the rapidly vanishing momentum for tackling Ebola is in many ways the story of modern American political culture. Short attention spans don't make for a constructive legislative environment. When the White House unveiled its request for $6.2 billion in emergency funding on Nov. 12, there was bipartisan consensus that quick action was required. The top Democrat and Republican appropriators in the Senate indicated their support and openness respectively. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the funding one of the top priorities in the lame-duck Congress. Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) office said it would review the request.
There was one problem. Ebola was no longer a crisis within American borders. Two days before the White House introduced its proposal, it was announced that the last U.S. patient suffering from Ebola, Dr. Craig Spencer of New York, had been cured.
That, combined with a number of other political issues consuming oxygen, and the matter receded into the backdrop even before the president asked for more money to help combat it. Consider this: On October 24, the word "Ebola" was mentioned 92 times during the White House daily press briefing, according to a transcript. It was mentioned 54 times on Oct. 27 and 46 times on Oct. 28. By Nov. 7, it was mentioned just 10 times. By Nov. 18, just six. By the 19th, just once. During Monday's press briefing (Dec. 1) just hours after the White House announced the president's NIH visit, it was mentioned just five times.
For those advocating for the full $6.2 billion to be passed, this has been like watching a race car hit the final laps with a near-empty tank. But in this case, the audience's health and well-being are directly affected by the car making it over the finish line. Ebola may have disappeared from within the United States, but it continues to tear apart countries in West Africa, even as the prognosis there has improved. That, in turn, threatens America.
"It is one of those situations where when it is out of sight it is out of mind for a lot of people. It is unfortunate that people are only focused on it when it is headline news because as we all know it is something lurking below the surface," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "We have evidence it has spread to more countries in West Africa including Mali. So the situation is very urgent, but it is not something on our television screens right now. … I’m just hoping people won’t be shortsighted."
As things stand now, neither Van Hollen nor the White House are in full despair. Negotiations continue in the House to produce an omnibus spending bill that would likely include Ebola funding. A spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told the Huffington Post that the $6.2 billion "is part of the scope of the negotiations," but that "no final decisions have been made as of yet." The expectation, among other Republican aides, is that the full administration request won't be fulfilled, but part of it will.
Officially, the White House has called for $4.64 billion for an immediate Ebola response and $1.54 billion for a contingency fund for future epidemics (for a total of $6.18 billion). Of that first tranche, $1.83 billion would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for disease detection and readiness; $238 million for the NIH for treatments and therapies; $25 million to the FDA, $1.98 billion to USAID to assist with recovery in Ebola-infected areas, $127 million to the State Department to aid international partners; and $112 million to the Defense Department for infrastructure and research. According to sources with knowledge of the president's Tuesday speech, he will use the opportunity to push for more U.S. hospitals to get designated as treatment centers for Ebola and other epidemics.
As House Republican put together an omnibus spending bill, lawmakers could add to, subtract from, or outright eliminate any of these buckets.
That concerns Democrats. What petrifies them, however, is that the House might not do an omnibus spending bill at all. If lawmakers in that chamber decide to withhold support unless the spending bill fully targets the president's executive action on immigration, it could precipitate a government shutdown when current funding ends on Dec. 11, or force leadership to go forward with a continuing resolution (CR). The latter would keep funding allocations largely as they exist, making it hard for government agencies to address Ebola.
"If they do a CR, there won’t be a dime [for Ebola]," said a Senate Democratic aide. "If they decide to go the route of the CR, my guess is [the entire issue] will drop off. The whole point of doing the budget is to respond to evolving real-world needs. This is in that category. If they decide not to do an omnibus because they are mad about immigration, then we are losing our best opportunity."
In an interview, Van Hollen declined to address this worst-outcome hypothetical, perhaps because early indications suggest that the House may pass an omnibus spending bill that specifically carves out and shortens funding for the enforcement of immigration laws. But even Senate Republican aides concede that the Ebola response funding is likely coming as part of the budget or not at all. In other words: There probably isn't going to be a stand-alone spending bill that contains the $6.2 billion or a portion of it. Which is why, on Tuesday, the president will venture out of the White House to address a crisis largely forgotten.
“While we have been heartened by the initial positive and bipartisan reaction, we have continued with an aggressive push so that Congress understands the importance of fully funding this request," said the senior administration official. "Without these resources, the gains that we have achieved both at home and abroad could be jeopardized."