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Pandemic-Preparedness Money Stripped from Stimulus

Pandemic-Preparedness Money Stripped from Stimulus

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, works her way through reporters to the Senate floor during deliberations on the economic stimulus bill in February. (Source: AP)

Fredreka Schouten, USA TODAY

April 29, 2009

WASHINGTON — Congress stripped nearly $900 million to combat an influenza pandemic from the economic-stimulus package earlier this year as part of last-minute negotiations to gain GOP support for the plan.

Now, with the spread of a potentially deadly strain of the swine flu, public-health advocates and liberal bloggers are sharply criticizing the move. Key Democratic lawmakers, including Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, vowed Monday to fight for increased funding in the coming weeks.

“It was a short-sighted decision,” Robert Pestronk, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said of the cut. The lack of federal funds and recession-fueled budget cuts at the state level have “reduced the ability of state and local governments to cope” with spreading swine-flu infections, he said.

Poll: Will the flu be the next pandemic?

At the center of the debate: Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who was one of three Republicans to back President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. She opposed inclusion of the pandemic-preparedness money during a floor debate on the legislation, arguing it would not jump-start the economy.

In the end, lawmakers agreed to trim more than $100 billion from the stimulus, including $870 million in flu spending.

On Monday, John Nichols, blogging for the liberal magazine The Nation, accused Collins of “just playing politics, in the exceptionally narrow and irresponsible manner that characterized the Republican response to the stimulus debate.”

Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley defended the senator’s actions and called the criticism “politically motivated.”

“Senator Collins always maintained that, though very worthwhile, this funding should go through the regular appropriations process since it did not meet the test of stimulus spending,” Kelley said in a statement. He said there was no evidence that federal efforts to deal with the swine flu outbreak have been hampered.

Collins was not the only lawmaker to criticize the spending. In February, as the Senate neared final approval of the stimulus bill, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., noted that “all those little porky things,” including flu pandemic money, had been removed.

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