POLITICS
11/12/2014 06:33 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2014

Now That The Election Is Over, Congress Seems To Have Calmed Down About Ebola

WASHINGTON -- The near-hysterical mood of congressional hearings on Ebola before the elections was replaced Wednesday by measured, reassuring debate in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

The committee held a hearing to discuss the White House's request for $6.2 billion to combat the epidemic. The Obama administration is asking for the money to ramp up efforts to control Ebola in Africa, prepare hospitals in the United States and develop treatments for the deadly virus.

Before the midterm elections, lawmakers in the House had hectored the nation's top medical experts in congressional hearings, often cutting them off and suggesting that they were ignorant about Ebola, that they were botching the response and that they were putting the nation at risk.

But at Wednesday's hearing, legislators allowed many of the same experts to answer questions fully and explain the complicated issues surrounding the response to the deadly, frightening disease.

And the senators were rewarded with perhaps the most reassuring of news: There is almost certainly no Ebola in America right now.

"We can now comfortably say that the United States of America is Ebola-free," said Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

The senators did question the experts about certain steps the Obama administration had taken. But unlike their colleagues before the election, on Wednesday the lawmakers waited for the answers.

Several senators noted that while the administration has opposed mandatory quarantines of medical workers and others coming from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the West African nations affected by the virus, the Department of Defense has slapped quarantines on military personnel returning from those countries.

The assembled experts explained that the military did that essentially to make service members more comfortable, not because it was medically necessary.

"It's not because we know something more than somebody else," said Gen. James M. Lariviere. "This was not a medically-based decision."

"This was not based on the science. This was based on the management of the force and the forces' desires," added Sylvia Burwell, the secretary of health and human services.

But with medical workers, the experts noted, there's a different issue. Quarantining them could discourage needed volunteers from getting involved, especially given that quarantines are only needed after someone shows symptoms. The disease is not passed through the air, and transmission requires contact with the bodily fluids of a person who is showing symptoms. The doctors also explained that there has never been a case of a disease like Ebola mutating to the point that the method of transmission changes.

The senators also pointed out that some other countries were barring travelers from Ebola-stricken nations, a step that members of Congress demanded last month.

The officials answered that doing this would make it much harder for American aid workers and scientists to travel to places where they are needed, which could harm efforts to curb the disease at its source. They also argued that if the United States took such a step -- which the scientists maintained was medically unnecessary -- other nations would likely follow suit, effectively isolating the infected regions and exacerbating the outbreak.

"If the United States of America does that, a lot of other nations are going to follow us," said Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, noting that the United States has significantly reduced the number of people traveling from the affected region. "I don't want to see this country become a leader in isolating those three countries."

Some of the Republican senators still seemed a little skeptical, but they went out of their way to praise the health experts.

"The quality of the discussion and exchange we've had today is excellent, certainly to better inform the members of our committee," said the recently re-elected Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who stands to take the chairmanship of the appropriations panel.

Congress is expected to address the emergency funding request in the current lame-duck session, before the new Congress is sworn in in January.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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