WASHINGTON — President Obama responded to mounting calls from lawmakers to put one point person in charge of managing the Ebola fight, but congressional Republicans contend his choice was politically motivated and lacks healthcare experience in a time of crisis.
The leading Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, who was discussing the threat of the virus at a roundtable with health experts in Memphis today, tweeted that the selection of Ron Klain as Ebola czar was “not what I had in mind.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the czar should have been someone “accountable to Congress,” such as a cabinet member.
“Unfortunately, the White House is treating this critical role like an appointment to be the ‘Green-Jobs Czar’ or a ‘Great Lakes Czar’ – political operatives with titles – not handling it with the seriousness it deserves,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) said.
“I am concerned the president’s appointment of a political ally will only add to the bureaucratic inefficiencies that have plagued Ebola response efforts thus fa. … This is a real crisis and worthy of an individual with extensive background in international diplomacy, experience coordinating large-scale interagency missions, as well as a proven ability to work with Congress and across the aisle.”
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), one of the doctors serving in Congress, called Obama’s pick an “unserious gesture at an incredibly serious moment.”
“That the president chose a political operative rather than a healthcare expert to head up his administration’s response to an outbreak of a deadly disease says a lot – and nothing positive – about the White House’s line of thinking,” Price said. “The American people are losing what little, if any, confidence they had left in President Obama’s ability to tackle the myriad challenges facing our nation.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said he had one main question: why the president “didn’t pick an individual with a noteworthy infectious disease or public health background?”
Ron Klain, a Democratic Party operative and former chief of staff to vice presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, has worked as a lawyer since leaving the White House in 2011. He led the legal team fighting for Gore in the 2000 hanging-chad suit and was portrayed by Kevin Spacey in HBO’s Recount.
When told at today’s White House briefing that members of Congress were expressing concern about the pick, press secretary Josh Earnest quipped, “That’s a shocking development, isn’t it?”
“Three weeks before an Election Day, and Republicans are seeking to score political points. Stop the presses,” Earnest snarked.
He started to define the czar’s role, stressing “this is much broader than just a medical response.”
“The response that you’ve seen from the administration is a whole-of-government response to ensure we’re leveraging the necessary resources to protect the American public,” Earnest said. “…There is a significant medical component here, as well, of course, but it’s not solely a medical response. That’s why somebody with Mr. Klain’s credentials, somebody that has strong management experience, both inside government, but also in the private sector, he’s somebody that has strong relationships with members of Congress and, obviously, strong relationships with those of us who worked with him here at the White House earlier in the administration.”
“All of that means that he is the right person for the job, and he is the right person to make sure that we are integrating the interagency response to this significant challenge.”
Klain will report to Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who have been leading the effort until now.
The appointment “indicates the administration’s tenacious approach to an evolving situation,” Earnest said.
“The president recognized that the response would benefit from having someone who could devote 100 percent of their time to this specific task, that is coordinating the response,” he said. “And somebody like Mr. Klain, who has a strong management track record both inside government and in the private sector, is the right person for the job.”
The press secretary was asked what Klain knows about Ebola.
“What we were looking for is not an Ebola expert, but rather an implementation expert. And that’s exactly what Ron Klain is,” Earnest replied, touting the lawyer’s experience implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or stimulus package. “I think the results of the recovery act as it relates to the economic impact certainly speak for themselves.”
“…But ultimately, the buck stops with the president of the United States, as it always does.”
Recommendations from lawmakers for the Ebola czar included Bush-era Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, Bush-era Surgeon General Richard Carmona, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
But Earnest said Klain was Obama’s first choice, “principally because of his strong track record of — because of his strong management credentials, both in the government but also in the private sector.”
Not all of the reaction from Congress was negative, with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, calling Klain “a qualified and capable leader respected throughout the government.”
“He is a brilliant strategist and is known for his ability to manage large, complex operations,” Coons said. “Ron also understands the importance of clear communications to the containment of a crisis like this. Ron has my trust and confidence, and I’m glad the president has selected him for this critical responsibility.”
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that grilled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden and other officials on Thursday, told MSNBC that Klain’s appointment may “help with the communications gap.”
“We don’t want the American public to become overly anxious about this,” DeGette said. “And so I think having this person who can coordinate between the health care providers, the health care agencies, and the communication with the public, I think that may really help. And it’s a gap that I think could be a good gap to fill.”
Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), whose state is dealing with its own Ebola watch after infected nurse Amber Vinson flew there last weekend, said “the jury’s out” on Klain.
“I personally thought we already had an Ebola czar, Secretary Burwell of HHS. What’s been missing all along from this whole scenario has been leadership, and I’m not sure what appointing someone that has no experience in health care or public health administration is going to do to help stem the tide of Ebola in west Africa and protect the public health of Americans here at home,” Johnson told CNN. “I’m not going to second guess the president’s decision because this is not about politics, this is about protecting the American people.”
Now that Obama moved on picking an Ebola czar, lawmakers are renewing their push on another demand: a travel ban from “hot zone” countries Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Price said moving forward the administration “ought to focus on a plan to deny entry to those traveling from the nations where this outbreak began and introducing a period of quarantine for those suspected of having been exposed to this deadly disease.”
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), who worked at Virginia’s Department of Health for two decades, penned a letter to Obama today calling travel restrictions “a sensible and prudent step that would protect Americans by slowing or halting the spread of this deadly virus.”
“Current health screenings in West African nations failed to stop an infected person from traveling from Liberia to the United States,” Wittman wrote. “Unfortunately, had travel restrictions already been in place, perhaps Ebola could have been stopped at the U.S. border without jeopardizing the health and safety of the American people.”
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) likewise wrote Obama a letter urging “sensible travel restrictions that help contain the outbreak in West Africa and prevent the spread to the U.S.”
House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) urged “immediate travel restrictions – such as visa bans for non-US nationals in the West African countries most impacted – in addition to making sure the CDC and other agencies have the resources they need.”
Chairman Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) Oversight and Government Reform Committee has called a hearing for Oct. 24 to scrutinize the government’s Ebola response.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) today reached out to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), arguing that Congress can’t wait until after Election Day to reconvene.
“Without improvements to border control, our nation runs the risk of additional Ebola cases reaching our shores. This is simply unacceptable,” Vitter and Garrett wrote.
“The Obama administration has failed to recognize this public health threat.… The House and Senate must reconvene to direct the administration on what steps must be taken to protect the American people.”