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Swine flu as pork: Congress cut flu money from stimulus bill

Obama wanted $850 million for pandemic preparedness. Congress said no.

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Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine has been forced to defend her role in negotiating a deal that cut pandemic preparedness money from President Obama’s stimulus bill in February. Her office has issued a statement saying that pandemic flu research, while very worthwhile, was not a matter of economic stimulus. She is pictured here at a 2005 Monitor Breakfast.

Andy Nelson/ The Christian Science Monitor

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The spread of the swine flu is casting new light on a compromise deal to cut $850 million in pandemic preparedness from the Obama administration’s economic recovery package.

In February, when a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators wanted to lop $110 billion off President Obama's plan, the move generated little controversy: Pandemic preparedness was not seen to be a matter of economic stimulus.

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But as cases of swine flu mount in Mexico and the United States, critics – such as a blogger for The Nation – are calling the move shortsighted. An outbreak similar to the one that hit the US in 1918 could result in a 1 to 4 percent decline in US gross domestic product, according to a 2006 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Those involved with proposing the cut have found themselves on the defensive, particularly Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine. She negotiated cutting pandemic preparedness funding from the stimulus plan as part of a compromise deal.

But she was hardly alone in singling out pandemic preparedness as unnecessary back in February. Democrats were fighting for every vote they could muster to pass the president’s economic recovery plan. In a bid to rally more GOP votes for the plan, Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York reminded reporters before the Feb. 10 vote that that “all those little porky things that the House put in,” including money for the flu pandemic, were out.

Senator Collins was one of the three Republican swing votes that helped the $779 billion stimulus package narrowly avoid a Senate filibuster.

Monday, she circulated a Dec. 10, 2008, letter showing she supported a $905 million increase in spending on biological terrorist attacks and pandemic preparedness.

"During negotiations of the economic stimulus package, Senator Collins always maintained that, though very worthwhile, pandemic flu research funding should go through the regular appropriations process since it did not meet the test of stimulus spending,” said spokesman Kevin Kelley in a statement.

On Wednesday, the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on “Swine Flu: Coordinating the federal response.” The panel is chaired by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut; Collins is the ranking Republican.

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The Omnibus appropriations bill signed into law in March contains $156 million for pandemic influenza research.