With leaders in both chambers coming under increased pressure to call Congress back into session to address the Ebola crisis, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) today said he’s preparing to introduce legislation to put a temporary ban on new visas from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
That follows last week’s announcement by Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) that he’s preparing a bill to restrict flights to and from Ebola-affected countries “until the virus is declared to be contained and no longer a threat.”
In a Friday letter, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) 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.”
There are no signs yet that Congress will be coming off the campaign trail to return to Washington, though, so Rubio is planning for a November unveiling of his legislation.
The ban would go into effect as soon as the bill is signed and would remain in effect until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have decided the outbreak in West Africa is contained.
If the disease spread in “significant levels” to another country, that would be added to the visa ban as well.
The bill will include an exemption for “individuals who are approved to come to the U.S. for training related to the Ebola outbreak.”
Dozens of Republicans and Democrats have come out in favor of a travel ban, though it’s clear that the extent of a ban and whether or not it extends to incoming flights, visas or both would be debated in both chambers.
“While Ebola’s deadly reach has proven to be a complex and unique international challenge, the many uncertainties surrounding this virus continue to threaten U.S. national security,” Rubio said in a statement. “Our biggest priority is ensuring that sufficient safeguards are in place to limit the spread of Ebola, contain it at the source, and protect Americans.”
“We must take any and all necessary precautions to contain this virus – and common sense restrictions on travel from countries now confronting this epidemic is an important step,” added Rubio. “The most effective way to combat this deadly virus is to address it at its source.”
Ross’ bill, the Contain Ebola and Stop the Epidemic (CEASE) Act, would “ban the arrival of any commercial aircraft from a country in which the Ebola virus disease has reached epidemic proportions as determined by the Director of the Center for Disease Control and to deny a visa to any individual whose travel itinerary includes a departure from such a country.”
“Now that two of our health care workers have contracted the virus I am putting my foot down. This legislation is a more serious approach to preventing Ebola from further infiltrating our homeland,” Ross said. “Airport security screening is a complete smoke and mirror approach to the virus and Americans aren’t buying it. I urge my colleagues to sign onto this legislation and hope Speaker Boehner will quickly call Congress back into session to debate my legislation.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Sunday on CNN that the administration’s assertion a travel ban would hamper relief flights is “very different from saying commercial airliners should fly day after day after day with hundreds of passengers connecting with thousands of passengers coming all throughout the country.”
“The arguments they’re giving don’t make sense,” Cruz said. “And what is unfortunate is watching the Obama administration treat this as yet another political issue rather than as a public health crisis; for the same reason, you’ve seen virtually no attention from the administration on the need to secure the southern border.”
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told MSNBC today that “there’s no ideology” in their Ebola strategy and signaled the administration’s resistance to calls for blocking travel from the hot zone.
“Frankly, the judgment of the professionals who know how to deal with these issues is that if you have a travel ban in place, it drives people underground. Instead of traveling through existing protocols that allows us to screen for Ebola, they seek to evade detection,” Rhodes said. “And, the fact of the matter is what we’ve been focused on, therefore, is screening. If people are trying to travel from West Africa into the United States, how can we screen them to make sure that they’re not posing a risk?”
“We believe that a travel ban could actually endanger people more by driving them underground and having people seeking to find ways into the United States that are outside the existing travel protocols.”
Rubio stressed that his bill banning the issuance of new visas “does not mean we will be completely cutting off the affected countries from the outside world.”
“We must continue to increase our assistance to those countries as they struggle to contain this outbreak,” the senator said. “That is, ultimately, the only way we will be able to stop this outbreak and keep Americans safe from this horrible disease.”