Republicans, Obama administration haggle over Ebola funding shift

By David Lawder
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with members of his national security team and senior staff to receive an update on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, at the White House in Washington October 6, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Almost $1 billion to help the U.S. military fight Ebola in West Africa has been tied up for nearly a month as the Obama administration negotiates with a handful of Republicans in Congress to lift their objections.

The lawmakers are demanding detailed plans on uses for the funds, precautions to keep military personnel from contracting the deadly virus and prevent the mission from turning into an expensive, long-term Pentagon commitment.

The lawmakers have held firm in these demands despite the first Ebola case being diagnosed in the United States in recent days, releasing only $50 million of the request to shift $1 billion from the Defense Department's war operations budget.

Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the recent cases involving Americans show that much is still unknown about protecting people in infected communities.

"This is an international crisis, and the United States should assist, which is why my colleagues and I have approved part of the president's $1 billion request," Inhofe said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

"But I also believe that the administration has a responsibility to show they are going to protect our service members who are being deployed to infected regions and also show a plan for how they are going to transition the aid to more appropriate government agencies and NGOs," the Oklahoma Republican said.

Congressional aides from both parties said on Monday they expect the administration to respond to these requests later this week, which may prompt release of the funds, or fuel more questions.

Inhofe and a handful of other lawmakers wield considerable power over the arcane budget process known as "reprogramming," under which the administration requested the funding shift. It needs no vote but a sign-off from the chairmen and ranking members of the relevant committees.

Senator Richard Durbin, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, agreed to the full $1 billion but this was trumped by his House Appropriations defense subcommittee counterpart, Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen, who would only release $50 million.

The House Appropriations Committee asked for detailed information on the use of the funds, on measures to ensure that the response effort is effective and on protecting Americans.

A Republican aide to the panel said that releasing only $50 million so far has not compromised the military's efforts.

"The spend-rate on that $50 million is quite low at the moment because they're still in the planning stages," the aide said.

Nonetheless, some lawmakers are getting nervous about the funding delay. Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat who heads the Senate's Africa subcommittee, called for balance between Congress' oversight role and a rapid response to the crisis.

"The administration ought to be able to show Congress that it has a clearly defined strategy, and the moment it does, Congress should release those funds immediately," Coons told Reuters via email. "We need bring to bear the full weight of the United States government to this crisis and we need to do it quickly."

(Reporting by David Lawder; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)