Republicans ramp up pressure for travel ban on citizens of nations affected by Ebola

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — As unsettling news about a second Dallas nurse contracting Ebola unspooled on Wednesday, driving anxiety in the U.S. higher, Republicans increased their calls for restrictions on travel to the U.S. from West Africa.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement late Wednesday that “a temporary ban on travel to the United States from countries afflicted with the virus is something that the president should absolutely consider.”

He was echoing what has become a chorus of calls from Republican U.S. Senate candidates ahead of the Nov. 4 midterm elections. On Wednesday alone, Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst and Georgia Senate candidate David Perdue — both of them locked in close contests — announced support for a ban on travel to the U.S. from West African countries. Other candidates favoring a travel ban or some type of travel restrictions include Steve Daines in Montana, Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Scott Brown in New Hampshire, Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Terri Lynn Land in Michigan, and incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.

On Thursday morning, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential 2016 presidential candidate, laid out — with more specifics than most other politicians — what kind of travel restrictions he would like to see.

“The State Department should institute a temporary ban on new visas to non-U.S. nationals seeking to travel to the United States from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea,” Rubio wrote in an op-ed at CNN.com. “Since March 1, 2014, over 6,000 visas have been issued to nationals of these countries. Foreign health workers coming to the United States to be trained should be exempted, provided they pass screening efforts. However, until we have a better handle on the problem, we need to prevent mass travel from the countries most affected. We should also ensure that Customs and Border Patrol agents at airports beyond the current transit points have the equipment and training to deal with potential cases. And additional travel restrictions should not be ruled out.”

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday as well, saying he would “strongly encourage” the U.S. to “immediately institute a temporary suspension of consular services — particularly the issuance of visas — for non-U.S. nationals in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“This is a reasonable and immediately implementable containment measure that may help mitigate the risk of further translocation to the United States, while not impeding the U.S. response to the epidemic,” Royce wrote.

Besides Rubio, other potential 2016 Republican candidates have already called for travel bans or temporary restrictions, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The White House remained dead set against a travel ban on Wednesday.

“There’s no consideration of a travel ban at this point,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “Shutting down the transportation system would limit the ability of the broader international community to mobilize the response; that getting personnel, medical experts, equipment and supplies into West Africa relies on the functioning of the transportation system. So the strong preference here is to keep the transportation system open, but safe.”

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, is testifying on Thursday on Capitol Hill and will be pressed on the issue. So far he has said that travel bans would push people intent on escaping outbreak zones to travel in ways that are “almost impossible to track.”

A computer model developed by professor Alex Vespignani, a physicist at Northeastern University in Boston, showed that a travel ban would temporarily lower the threat of new Ebola cases entering the U.S., but would not help in the long term.

So far, most Democrats have stayed with the Obama administration against a travel ban or travel restrictions. But it may be difficult for Democrats to stay united on the issue. Even before it emerged on Wednesday that a second nurse tested positive for Ebola, and had flown from Cleveland to Dallas with a fever of 99.5 the night before being hospitalized, about two-thirds of Americans said they favored some kind of travel restrictions to prevent Ebola.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a debate with Gillespie this week that it might be time to restrict flights from West Africa. The Obama White House “should have acted quicker” to address Ebola, he said.

In Georgia, where Perdue is locked in a tough battle with Democrat Michelle Nunn, the chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, DuBose Porter, didn’t hesitate when I asked him if Democrats would change their mind and begin supporting a travel ban.

“I think if this continues, yes,” he said.

In Iowa, Democratic consultant Jeff Link, who is advising Rep. Bruce Braley’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, said he was “not sure if a travel ban will be included or not at this point.”

A “travel ban alone isn’t enough,” he wrote in an email. “Honestly, this shouldn't be partisan. It must be handled right.”

In recent days, Democrats have criticized Republicans for seeking to cut federal spending, arguing that it has hurt the nation’s emergency preparedness and diminished medical research. The head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, said a vaccine for ebola would have been found already if not for budget cuts. Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie explained the argument against this conclusion.

But Democrats are using this talking point in the political debate over Ebola. On Wednesday night, Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said, “Democrats are supporting an aggressive response to protect Americans and Republicans, who cut funding for the CDC and our public health infrastructure, have a lot to answer for.”

The challenge for Democrats is that the argument over funding is largely a backward-looking one, while the American public will want answers and solutions going forward.

Another senior Democratic operative said more frankly that as events were moving quickly Wednesday, Democratic political operatives were “figuring this out as we go.”

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