By Bill Sammon
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
President Bush said yesterday that he was concerned about the potential for an avian flu outbreak and suggested empowering the Pentagon to quarantine parts of the nation should they become infected.
"If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country, and how do you then enforce a quarantine?" he said during a Rose Garden press conference.
"It's one thing to shut down airplanes; it's another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian flu," he added. "And who best to be able to effect a quarantine? One option is the use of a military that's able to plan and move."
Ever since the Federal Emergency Management Agency's struggle to respond to Hurricane Katrina, the president has been talking about putting the Pentagon in charge of major natural disasters, terrorist attacks and outbreaks of disease.
That would entail removing governors from the decision-making process and vesting more power in Mr. Bush.
Yesterday, he acknowledged that the plan is not universally popular.
"Some governors didn't like it; I understand that," the former Texas governor said. "I didn't want the president telling me how to be the commander in chief of the Texas Guard.
"But Congress needs to take a look at circumstances that may need to vest the capacity of the president to move beyond that debate," he added. "And one such catastrophe, or one such challenge, could be an avian flu outbreak."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said yesterday that Mr. Bush is not up to that challenge.
"Clearly, we're not where we should be as a nation in preparing for a flu pandemic, just as we weren't adequately prepared for Katrina," he said. "The administration has failed to stockpile needed flu medicines, delayed the publication of a comprehensive response plan and irresponsibly cut funding for public-health preparedness and hospital surge capacity."
Scientists and government officials worldwide are worried that the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which has killed several people in Asia who had direct contact with infected birds, could mutate to a strain that allows person-to-person transmission.
The flu virus mutates with ease, but it's still not known whether this form can become one that spreads from casual contact between people, the prerequisite for a major epidemic.
Mr. Bush said he has been spending a lot of time investigating preparedness for a devastating pandemic. During his remarks yesterday, he sought to raise awareness without causing undue alarm.
"I'm not predicting an outbreak; I'm just suggesting to you that we better be thinking about it, and we are," he said.
"We're more than thinking about it; we're trying to put plans in place."
In the wide-ranging press conference, his first in more than four months, the president also called on Congress to make spending cuts to offset the cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"Congress needs to pay for as much of the hurricane relief as possible by cutting spending," he said. "I'll work with members of Congress to identify offsets, to free up money for the reconstruction efforts.
"I will ask them to make even deeper reductions in the mandatory spending programs than are already planned," he added. "As Congress completes action on the 2006 appropriations bills, I call on members to make real cuts in non-security spending."
The president also seemed to acknowledge that he will not reform Social Security this year, although he held out hope that Congress would reconsider the issue next year.
"It's an issue that's not going to go away, and I'll continue to talk about it," he said. "There seems to be a diminished appetite in the short term, but I'm going to remind people that there is a long-term issue that we must solve."
Mr. Bush also expressed frustration at winning only 11 percent of the black vote last year, although he noted that was an improvement over the 9 percent he garnered in 2000.
"You've got to go out and work hard for the vote and talk about what you believe," he said. "And I try to do so, with not a lot of success, although I improved.
"But I was disappointed, frankly, in the vote I got in the African-American community," he said. "Just got to keep working at it."