Friday, November 18, 2005

Lawmakers reject emergency bird flu funds


Lawmakers reject emergency bird flu funds

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Emergency money that President George W. Bush requested to combat a looming influenza pandemic has been deleted from U.S. health-funding legislation after conservative Republicans insisted it would have to be paid for by cutting other government programs.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday unexpectedly defeated the fiscal 2006 health-care spending bill, even with the avian flu funds barred from the measure. The fate of the massive funding bill, as well as money to fight an avian flu outbreak, was now in doubt as Congress had little time left before adjourning for the year.

After days of intensive talks between the House and Senate, negotiators dropped a plan for $8 billion in funds that Democrats pushed through the Senate last month.

Following that Senate vote, Bush on November 1 asked Congress for $7.1 billion in emergency money.

The funding fight erupted after conservative Republicans in the House insisted that an emergency U.S. effort to stockpile vaccines and anti-viral drugs that could be effective against the deadly flu would have to be paid for by cutting other government programs.

Republican leaders in the House said that instead of attaching the bird flu money to a massive $602 billion health and labor spending bill that is rapidly moving through Congress, they would try separate legislation later this year or early next year.

Avian flu has been killing poultry flocks in Asia and the animal disease has spread globally. More than 100 people have been infected with avian flu and about half have died.

Scientists fear a pandemic-style human outbreak if the virus mutates in a way that people could easily pass the disease to each other.


House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, a California Republican, helped block the emergency funds. But earlier this week he acknowledged, "The more I study it, the more I see the potential for a pandemic."

Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, one of several conservative Republicans pushing for less government spending, told Reuters he would try to kill any avian flu legislation that does not offset the spending with cuts to other programs.

But Rep. Ralph Regula, the Ohio Republican who oversees health-care funding in the House, said it's such a big-ticket item that "There's no way to offset $7 billion or $8 billion."

Democrats in Congress have been urging quick approval of the money, which also would be used to step up worldwide surveillance of the disease and help localities cope with an outbreak.

But with Congress already reeling over $62 billion in emergency spending for the fall's hurricane cleanup and with huge budget deficits becoming chronic, conservatives have warned their leaders that they will not tolerate an open checkbook.

As a result, the House on Thursday also was set to debate $50 billion in spending cuts that hit social programs for the poor and have generated a broad debate over government priorities. At the same time, House Republicans are advancing tax cuts that help the wealthy.