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Bush wants troops to enforce bird flu quarantines
WASHINGTON - President Bush, stirring debate on the
worrisome possibility of a bird flu pandemic, suggested dispatching American
troops to enforce quarantines in any areas with outbreaks of the killer
Bush said aggressive action could be needed to prevent a potentially crippling U.S. outbreak of a bird flu strain that is sweeping through Asian poultry and causing experts to fear it could become the next deadly pandemic. Citing concern that state and local authorities might be unable to contain and deal with such an outbreak, Bush asked Congress to give him the authority to call in the military.
The president has already indicated he wants to give the armed forces the lead responsibility for conducting search-and-rescue operations and sending in supplies after massive natural disasters and terrorist attacks - a notion that could require a change in law and that even some in the Pentagon have reacted to skeptically. The idea raised the startling-to-some image of soldiers cordoning off communities hit by disease.
"The president ought to have all . . . assets on the table to be able to deal with something this significant," Bush said during a 55-minute question-and-answer session with reporters in the Rose Garden.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness, called the president's suggestion an "extraordinarily draconian measure." He said the measure would be unnecessary if the nation had built the capability for rapid vaccine production, ensured a large supply of anti-virals like Tamiflu, and not allowed the degradation of the public health system.
"The translation of this is martial law in the United States," Redlener said.
It was the president's first full-fledged news conference in over four months, as the White House hopes to regain momentum lost amid sky-high gasoline prices, a rising death toll in Iraq, and a flawed response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush has seen a small rise in his approval ratings, but they remain near the lowest of his presidency.
Despite the polls and recent grumbling about his performance from some Republicans, Bush insisted he still had "plenty" of political capital that he would spend getting lawmakers to go along with his proposed budget cuts, Iraq strategy, proposals to add to U.S. oil refining capacity and desire for a reauthorization of the anti-terror Patriot Act.
He called for quick confirmation of his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court.
On other topics, Bush:
? Said the White House has begun the search for a replacement for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, who retires in January, but he hasn't seen names yet.
? Acknowledged the public had a "diminished appetite" for overhauling Social Security, a top priority earlier this year that was in trouble before Katrina hit and has nearly completely fallen off Congress' radar since then.
? Said he was "disappointed, frankly, in the vote I got in the African-American community" in November after trying hard to bring it up from the 9 percent he got in 2000. Bush won 11 percent of the black vote in 2004, and the poor federal response to Katrina's mostly poor and black victims has led many to question Republicans' hopes of doing better.
Bush signed an executive order in April adding pandemic influenza to the government's list of communicable diseases for which a quarantine is authorized.
The key question he introduced into the debate Tuesday was who would control it: the states that by law now have the main responsibility for containing an outbreak within their borders, or the federal government, which typically has been in charge of keeping diseases from entering the country.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president envisioned possible military control of the quarantine process only "in the most extreme circumstances" and when state and local resources are overwhelmed.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the military hasn't been asked to develop such a plan. But he noted the military's capabilities, with mobile medical units and hospital ships and the ability to create field hospitals quickly.