Washington — The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee is holding up money to fight Ebola until the Obama administration provides details on how the military would protect American personnel sent to Africa to battle the epidemic.
Sen. Jim Inhofe also wants more specifics on the financial and logistics demands such assistance would impose upon a defense budget already stretched thin.
The administration submitted two requests totaling $1 billion on September 9 and September 16. The money would be "reprogrammed" from a war-time account, including money that would have been spent in Afghanistan. The administration made the request even though Army Major Gen. Darryl Williams, who commands U.S. Army Africa, hadn't arrived in country to assess the situation until Sept. 16.
Inhofe, who has traveled several times to Africa, is insisting on a comprehensive plan from the Pentagon on how it will protect U.S. personnel from contracting the fast-spreading disease. The military would be interacting with health care workers administering to the stricken.
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Under the arcane process for shifting Pentagon funds from one account to the other, the top Republican and Democrat of the House and Senate Armed Services committees as well as the top lawmakers on the rival chamber's Appropriations Committees need to sign off. Inhofe is withholding his approval until he gets more information.
The Appropriations committees have signed off on a $50 million first installment, but House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers wants more details as well before approving any more money.
"The Ebola outbreak is clearly a crisis that has reached a level of international health and security concern. I agree that additional funding is now necessary to help the affected region and to stop the spread of this horrible and rapidly growing epidemic," said Rogers, a Republican. "However, it is imperative that any U.S. efforts are conducted in a clear and transparent manner to ensure the proper use of taxpayer dollars and our armed forces, the effectiveness of response activities, and the protection of the health and safety of American military and civilian personnel abroad."
The House Armed Services Committee also signed off on the first installment, but insisted that the Pentagon inform the panel about biosecurity for military personnel, the length of deployments, the impact on other military operations in Africa and how the money will be spent, before the funds are released.
On Tuesday, top U.S health officials issued a warning that the number of infected people could hit 1.4 million by mid-January under a worst-case scenario. An aggressive response would mean far fewer people get the disease.
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Inhofe is also asking for details on the roles and responsibilities for the 3,000 personnel the Pentagon is planning to send to Africa, a number that could go higher, said a congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss private conversations. The Pentagon also has indicated that this operation would last at least six months.
The Pentagon has been less than forthcoming in providing answers, with a lack of planning on the front end of the operation.
The money would go to transport troops and health care providers and supplies such as isolation units, protective suits, and medicines for treating Ebola patients. It would also pay for temporary shelters to quarantine patients and other steps to limit the spread of Ebola.
Inhofe's concerns come as the military struggles with automatic spending cuts and reduced budgets.
The deadline for the request is Sept. 30, but the administration is seeking the transfer authority as early as this weekend.