The White House said there's plenty of money in reserve to fight the spate of flu cases rapidly spreading around the country, but a leading congressman promised to add more, just in case.
Congress opened hearings Tuesday into the federal response to the emerging swine flu virus threat, with a Senate session expected to shed light on how much federal money might be needed to build the nation's capacity to develop new vaccines.
Lawmakers also faced the consequences of actions they took reluctantly earlier this year to smooth the way for passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus bill.
Because of significant opposition to the nearly trillion-dollar sum sought by the Obama administration, majority Democrats who control Congress were obliged to drop up to $870 million — money reserved to prepare for the very kind of pandemic that's now frighteningly possible.
Considerable resources available
A spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, asked Tuesday whether the executive branch planned an infusion of money in its own right, replied, "Nothing planned at the moment."
Said spokesman Tom Gavin: "The Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services are continuing to assess the risk from the flu outbreak and implement responses. For now, both departments currently have considerable resources available to respond."
Still, Congress seemed certain to respond to the health emergency with additional cash on top of the more than $7 billion that it has appropriated since 2006, when there were fears of a bird flu pandemic.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that deals with pandemic preparedness, called an emergency hearing Tuesday to assess how much money might be needed to help states and the federal government respond to the threat.
Harkin said he will push to restore the $870 million in an upcoming spending bill, with the aim of bolstering the country's defenses against the virus.
On the House side, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey said he'll put additional flu-fighting funds into a bill covering the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he didn't specify how much.
"Whether or not this influenza strain turns out to have pandemic potential, sooner or later, some strain will," Obey said Monday.
The Wisconsin Democrat had attached $420 million in flu prevention money to the stimulus bill; Harkin more than doubled that figure.
At the time, the moves produced chuckles and criticism. After all, Democrats had vowed to limit the stimulus bill to items that would directly generate jobs and the flu money didn't seem to meet that criteria.
Senate moderates led by Susan Collins, R-Maine and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., forced the flu money out of the stimulus bill. Roughly $776 million in flu-fighting money was included instead in an omnibus spending bill that passed last month.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa said he will push to add an additional $870 million to an upcoming spending bill to fight the flu cases rapidly spreading around the country.
Harkin is the Democratic chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that deals with pandemic preparedness. He called an emergency hearing Tuesday to assess how much money might be needed to help states and the federal government respond to the threat.