As a handful of House members return to the Capitol Thursday for a special recess hearing on Ebola, lawmakers in both parties are grappling with a practical — and political — question: Who gets the blame?
"It's a tough one," Rep. Michael Burgess said during a pen-and-pad briefing Wednesday with reporters.
Burgess, who is also a doctor, wondered aloud whether fault lies with the fact that Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola fatality in the U.S., was allowed in the country in the first place; whether the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, where Duncan died, ignored safeguards; or whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not been, as the Texas Republican, said, "as forthcoming with information as they said they were."
Burgess said the Texas hospital — where two health care workers have now contracted Ebola from coming into contact with Duncan — is probably prepared to take "some pretty tough questions tomorrow," referring to the hearing to take place at noon Thursday on the U.S. public health response to Ebola. (You can watch the hearing live on rollcall.com.) CDC Director Thomas Frieden, scheduled to participate in the hearing, is also likely to take a good deal of criticism; some Republican lawmakers are already calling for his resignation.
Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham Wednesday that Frieden should step down, and Pennsylvania Republican Tom Marino wasn't far behind. Marino issued a statement saying he had "no ill will" toward Frieden personally, but, he said, he should resign his position effective immediately.
"This Ebola situation is beginning to spiral beyond control," Marino said. "The reports my colleagues and I have received are utterly unacceptable and the information provided to the public has been cryptic and in some cases misleading. This has provided a false sense of security to many of our citizens."
Burgess wasn't ready to call for Frieden's resignation, and he said he didn't think the hearing would turn into a political witch hunt. "This really shouldn't be a partisan hearing," he said.
Burgess said he thought there was genuine interest on both sides of the aisle to move forward and address the public health concerns regarding Ebola, and while he acknowledged a spectrum of possible responses to the outbreak, he wasn't ready to declare it a partisan issue.
But there is a growing trend on the Republican side to call for a travel ban from West African countries to the United States — something Burgess said he agreed with. And the issue could have Senate election implications, as Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who is trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, is expected to attend the Ebola hearing and reiterate his support for a travel ban.
And on Wednesday, the leading Republicans in the Senate and House on aviation — Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation ranking member John Thune of South Dakota and House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania — called for a travel ban as well. The chorus could pick up as election day draws closer and voters look to their legislators for some sort of solution.
In whatever way lawmakers respond, however, the issue is unlikely to leave the public's focus. Ebola is quickly becoming the dominant issue in Congress, even as the United States conducts airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, and as Congress isn't even in town.
Emma Dumain and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.
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