GOP: Obama playing catch-up on Ebola

Senate Republicans used a hearing Wednesday to raise questions about the Obama administration’s effort to fight Ebola — and its request for $6 billion in emergency funding.

After grilling White House leaders on Ebola for nearly three hours, the Senate Appropriations Committee's top Republican said he is still looking for answers about exactly where the money would go.

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“We want to make sure this money is well spent,” Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMcConnell support for election security funds leaves Dems declaring victory Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg courts critics on Capitol Hill | Amazon makes climate pledge | Senate panel approves 0M for state election security House votes to avert shutdown, fund government through November MORE (R-Ala.) told The Hill after the hearing. “And we don’t know that yet.”

Shelby slammed the government’s response to Ebola as uncoordinated and full of “mixed messages” on policies such as travel restrictions and hospital protocols, which he said has eroded public trust.

Still, he said he would “make sure” the government has the funding it needs to fight the disease. No Republicans indicated during the hearing that they would block the White House’ request, which must be decided by mid-December.

The highly anticipated Senate hearing included top officials from across the administration, but largely recycled concerns from the half-dozen hearings Congress has already held on Ebola. The hearing also came one day after the last American diagnosed with Ebola was given a clean bill of health.

Still, pressure for funding is growing internationally. The disease’s death toll surpassed 5,000 this week, which includes  an alarming new cluster of cases in Mali.

Ebola was first diagnosed in the U.S. in September, just weeks after Obama said it would be unlikely for it appear here. Since then, federal officials have shifted on other messaging and public fears have swelled.

Congress has held more than a half-dozen hearings since August.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTrump judicial picks face rare GOP opposition GOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Sinema touts bipartisan record as Arizona Democrats plan censure vote MORE (R-Maine) also cast doubt on the $6 billion request. She argued that the country’s biggest challenge to fighting Ebola is leadership, not funding.

She urged the administration to be “more vigilant” on all fronts and said she was “particularly concerned” that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was slow to respond to threats within the U.S.

“The agency clearly needs to do a better job of getting in front of these issues if it is to inspire the full faith and confidence of the American people,” Collins said.

Committee leader Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said the funding was urgent – and temporary – and hopes to see the funding in the year-long omnibus bill that must pass by Dec. 11.

“It’s sudden, unanticipated, unforeseen, urgent and temporary,” Mikulski said, stressing that the country has reported just nine cases – “N-I-N-E” – compared to the 14,000 thousand in West Africa.

Top White House leaders – including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell – pointed to some progress in the country’s fight against Ebola.

"We are optimistic that our strategy is starting to have an impact, with declines in the number of new cases in parts of Liberia," Burwell said in her testimony.

Heather Higginbottom, a deputy secretary for the State Department, also touted some improvements in the outbreak.

“We are beginning to see results, but it is important to recognize that the epidemic is not [yet over],” she said.

The disease is continuing to spread widely and kill quickly in West Africa, international aid groups have warned. The number of infections is now 14,098, with a death rate as high as 70 percent in some areas, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Funding remains a key hurdle for the international effort. WHO still needs 36 percent of its $260 million target to fight the outbreak, the agency said Wednesday.

The funding has been a priority for Obama, who called it necessary to protecting Americans.

"This request supports all necessary steps to fortify our domestic health system and prevent any outbreaks at home," Obama wrote in a letter to Congress ahead of the hearing.

Updated with additional information at 7:08 p.m.