Obama urges Congress to move on Ebola aid

President Barack Obama, Dec. 1, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
President Barack Obama, Dec. 1, 2014 in Washington, D.C. TNS

President Barack Obama called on lawmakers Tuesday to approve a $6.18 billion emergency funding request to tackle Ebola in West Africa before leaving Washington for the holidays.

“We cannot beat Ebola without more funding and if we want other countries to keep stepping up, we have to keep leading the way,” Obama said Tuesday during a trip to the National Institutes of Health. “It's a good Christmas present to the American people and to the world.”

The administration requested the money last month, including $4.64 billion for an immediate response and $1.54 billion for a contingency fund to meet future needs. The money is designed to improve U.S. public health systems, contain the epidemic in West Africa, speed up the development of vaccines and treatments and strengthen global health security by helping vulnerable countries prevent disease outbreak, the White House said.

Obama said he was “very encouraged so far” by bipartisan support for the money and cautioned against it becoming a divisive issue.

“This can’t get caught up in normal politics,” Obama said. “We need to protect the American people and we need to show the world how America leads.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested Tuesday there is a “chance” that the funding could get held up in a year-end budget battle, despite broad support from both parties. He stopped short of saying Obama would veto a spending plan that doesn’t include the full Ebola package, but said the money for fighting the disease remained a “top national security priority.”

Obama also hailed NIH’s Francis Collins and Tony Fauci and their teams on the promising results of a Ebola vaccine candidate. He noted his visit came as Ebola cases and fears have receded in the U.S., but warned that the disease remains a threat in West Africa -- and potentially to the U.S.

“The urgency remains because if we are going to actually solve this problem for ourselves, we have to solve it in West Africa as well,” Obama said.

He cited Nancy Writebol, a Charlotte, N.C. missionary, who contracted Ebola in Liberia and recovered at Emory in Atlanta, but still finds that although some people “just totally wrap their arms around you,” others “stand 10 feet away."

“This disease is not just a test of our health systems: it is a test of our character as a nation,” he said. “It asks us who we are as Americans. When we see a problem in the world, like thousands of people dying from a disease that we know how to fight, do we stand 10 feet away, or 10,000 miles away, or do we lead and deploy and go to help?”

The White House announced earlier Tuesday that there are now 35 medical facilities nationwide prepared to treat an Ebola patient -- up from just three a few months ago. The number of domestic labs capable of testing for Ebola has also been increased, from 13 to 42 labs in 36 states.

Related stories from McClatchy DC