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Lawmakers React with Caution to Bush Flu Plan

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Lawmakers are responding cautiously to President Bush's preparations for a flu pandemic. The president says he wants the country to be ready to act at the first sign of danger.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There is no pandemic flu in our country or in the world at this time. But if we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. And one day, many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today.

INSKEEP: The president said yesterday that he wants more than $7 billion to find and guard against any dangerous new strain of influenza. The lawmakers who would have to approve that request generally welcomed it, though they say the plan may be too small and late. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

For more than a year, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate have been urging the administration to complete and release its plan to fight a potential flu pandemic. And while the flu that spread rapidly among birds in Asia and Europe has so far not spread from human to human, scientists say just one mutation could threaten the lives of millions of people worldwide. Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, who oversees health program funding in the Senate, said he thought the president's speech Tuesday at the National Institutes of Health made a strong case for quick action.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): The president outlined a very, very scary scenario. He outlined a scenario where we do not have the vaccine to protect Americans. And there are ways to take some partial steps, and we've got to do that.

ROVNER: Those steps include a request for $2 1/2 billion to purchase and stockpile both an experimental vaccine and antiviral drugs that experts hope could lessen the flu's impact. Additional funds would help other nations detect and hopefully contain the flu if it starts spreading from person to person, as well as money for state and local governments to improve their readiness. While the administration has been working on the plan for more than a year, few of the ideas are new with many included in bills introduced in Congress by Republicans and Democrats. And just last week, the Senate added $8 billion for pandemic preparedness to the annual Health and Human Services Department's spending bill. That led to a round of `I told you sos' from Senate Democrats, including Iowa's Tom Harkin.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): The president this morning kept saying he's gonna ask Congress for this and ask Cong--well, he doesn't have to ask 'cause we've already done it.

ROVNER: But the big question is: What will happen to that money when the spending bill goes to conference with the House in the coming weeks? President Bush and the Senate want the money appropriated as an emergency, meaning it wouldn't require cuts from elsewhere in the budget. But House conservatives say they haven't decided yet if they'll go along with that. Harkin says that's one place the president can help.

Sen. HARKIN: If this is a national emergency, we'll just have to see whether the president will now use the power of this office to get ahold of the House of Representatives and say, `Accept what the Senate did.'

ROVNER: And while Democrats welcomed the overall thrust of the Bush plan, they did have some nits to pick. One, says Harkin, is that the plan calls for states to help pay for the antiviral drugs.

Senator HARKIN: Louisiana's got money for that? Mississippi's got money for that? How about a lot of other states that don't have the money? You mean they don't get it then?

ROVNER: Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama, who's also been working on pandemic preparedness, says the president's plan fails to designate a single person to lead the government's response.

Sen. BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): It's unclear whether the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Health and Human Services will lead the response effort, but we've all seen in the wake of Katrina how important a clear chain of command is. And so the president should clarify this.

ROVNER: And New York Democrat Charles Schumer, who's been negotiating with the maker of the antiviral drug Tamiflu to expand production, says the president's plan should aim for an even larger supply.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Every expert says that you should cover 40 percent--25 to 40 percent of the nation's population. The president wants to cover 15 percent at most. That's rolling the dice and hoping and praying, and that's not good enough.

ROVNER: Lawmakers are getting more details of the administration's flu plan today. Top health officials, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, are testifying before a Senate panel this morning and a House committee this afternoon. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You can find complete bird flu coverage, including answers to some of your questions about the disease, at npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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