White House on back foot on Ebola

The Obama administration is struggling to explain why it has different policies for troops and civilian healthcare workers responding to Ebola in West Africa. 

Troops returning from Ebola response efforts in West Africa are now subject to a mandatory 21-day quarantine-like policy. Civilian medical workers are not.

The policy on troops was announced by Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelHillicon Valley: Democrats request counterintelligence briefing | New pressure for election funding | Republicans urge retaliation against Chinese hackers National security leaders, advocacy groups urge Congress to send election funds to states The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations MORE on Wednesday; the lack of a similar civilian requirement is, in part, due to the White House pressuring governors not to impose one.

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Republicans have seized on the differences as another illustration of policy mismanagement ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Rep. Walter JonesWalter Beaman JonesExperts warn Georgia's new electronic voting machines vulnerable to potential intrusions, malfunctions Georgia restores 22,000 voter registrations after purge Stacey Abrams group files emergency motion to stop Georgia voting roll purge MORE (R-N.C.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday the administration’s response to the Ebola crisis was “not well thought out,” and that he did not understand why the military had to be a part of that response at all. 

“It seems like after they’ve been there, new rules are being made as they continue to serve our nation in West Africa,” he added. 

Rep. Tim MurphyTim MurphyBiden receives endorsements from three swing-district Democrats A federal abortion law might be needed Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE (R-Pa.), while acknowledging a general confusion over the issue, expressed his preference for the military’s approach over the more relaxed standards for civilians.

“Hopefully, this ambiguity is going to end soon, but I think the military has it right,” he said on CNN on Wednesday.

Those two comments are part of a broader argument made by Republicans.

After an Ebola-infected patient returned to Texas from Liberia and infected two nurses, some in the GOP have asserted that the administration’s actions form part of a larger pattern of managerial incompetence.

“I think, ultimately, what this election has a lot do with is really bad management, mismanagement, the lack of management, managers that can't manage, and the president's at the head of all of this,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Sunday on CNN. 

Hagel's decision to order the 21-day quarantine-like policy came after the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended he do so — putting him in a seemingly awkward position between the preference of the nation’s top military officials and the overall attitude of the commander in chief. 

The position was made even trickier, when it appeared that the Army's chief, Gen. Ray Odierno, had pre-empted Hagel and the administration by ordering the quarantine-like policy earlier this week for all soldiers returning from the region. 

Republicans seized on the seeming conflict, applauding Hagel's order.

"By agreeing with the Joint Chiefs, Secretary Hagel made a tough call today," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) in a statement.

Hagel's decision also provide succor for those who have called for a 21-day quarantine for anyone who returns to the United States after responding to the Ebola crisis. 

"We are hopeful that this period is in effect a quarantine," Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio.) said in a statement.

After the Pentagon’s decision was announced on Wednesday, President Obama met with healthcare workers who recently returned from West Africa and who have not been under 21-day quarantines. In the process, he placed a spotlight on the more relaxed approach pertaining to civilians. 

The administration has said there is no conflict between the two policies but has struggled to coherently explain why, and even issued apparently conflicting messages.  

President Obama said Tuesday that volunteer civilian workers should not be subjected to quarantines because they were already sacrificing time away from their loved ones. 

His remarks unintentionally offended military spouses who said troops were all volunteers whose families felt the separation just as keenly.

Putting a quarantine in place, Obama said, would amount to “just putting another barrier on somebody who's already doing really important work on our behalf."

Obama also said that such a quarantine on civilian workers would not be “based on science and best practices.”

However, administration officials later said the Pentagon’s policy was also based on expert advice.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the Pentagon's decision "indicates the kind of efficiency gains that the military is seeking by taking troops who have spent time in West Africa, and keeping them together and actively monitoring their health in one place." 

But he also added that it “reflects the kind of scientific guidance that we've got from the CDC about the need to monitor their health.” 

In addition, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday that the recommendation was made after consulting service and Joint Staff surgeons, as well as health affairs officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. 

Hagel made his own effort to explain the differences on Wednesday. 

”The fact is, the military will have more Americans in Liberia than any other department. That's No. 1. No. 2, our people are younger. The cohorts are different. They are not volunteers,” he said, adding that military families wanted the “safety valve” of a quarantine period.

Earnest also made an effort to recognize the sacrifices made by troops and their families, by serving in West Africa, and by undergoing additional monitoring under the new policy. 

"And we certainly are appreciative of and respectful of the kinds of sacrifices like that, that our men and women in uniform and their families make on a daily basis, even on those days that it’s not publicly acknowledged," he said.

Nonetheless, Republicans say they will keep a close eye on troops as they serve in West Africa.

Jones said he had written to Army Secretary John McHugh, asking for an explanation as to why soldiers are being used for Ebola relief efforts. His stance echoes that of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' Mark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Prominent conservatives question Jerry Falwell Jr. vacation photo MORE (R-Ariz.), who is demanding a probe into why troops are being deployed to West Africa without congressional approval.