So Much for the Specter of a Flu Pandemic

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Washington found itself in the grip yesterday of two contagions: swine flu and Specter fever.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) was holding the first congressional hearing to determine what more can be done to stop the Mexican flu from turning into a pandemic. But at 1:45 p.m., the flu was overtaken by the fever, resulting in instant paralysis in the body politic.

Less than an hour after the hearing started, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) sauntered in, trailed by 10 photographers shooting thousands of frames of the man who, 90 minutes earlier, announced that he was abandoning the GOP. Instead of taking his usual spot next to Harkin in the ranking Republican's chair, Specter chose a seat at the end of the row of Democrats.

"I regret that I can't stay longer, but this is a complicated day for me," Specter declared, and everybody but the mystified public health officials erupted in laughter.

"That's not a laugh line, but you can laugh," Specter allowed.

Harkin, forgetting for the moment about pandemic flu, celebrated his new Democratic colleague as "a great partner, a great friend, a great leader in health care."

He got up and hugged Specter -- even though the CDC has warned that such close contact could speed the spread of swine flu.

Without asking a single question, Specter left the flu hearing to give a news conference. In the hallway he told the photographers which way he'd be walking, then waited while they got in position to film him. "I'll give you all time to set up," he offered.

You might think that, with tens of millions of lives potentially at stake, political Washington would abandon its maneuverings for a day or two and figure out what can be done to, say, speed up vaccine production. But even in a swine flu outbreak, Congress has no immunity to pigheadedness.

That, of course, is how we got into this situation to begin with: Despite years of warnings about a pandemic, vaccines are still grown in eggs, the way they were in the 19th century. There aren't enough manufacturing facilities for vaccines or hospital beds for the sick or plans to keep services running while millions are dying.

But in Washington, even a potential pandemic pales in comparison to a party switcher. Reporters fled Harkin's hearing for Specter's news conference in the Senate TV studio. There, the Pennsylvania moderate said he was changing parties -- and possibly giving Democrats the filibuster-proof majority of 60 -- for the simple fact that he faced "bleak" prospects in a Republican primary next year.

Suddenly, the flu could wait; everybody had a case of Specter fever. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) forgot all about the swine flu as he gave a news conference denouncing Specter and "the threat to the country presented by this defection."

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (Nev.), likewise, neglected to mention the flu at his news conference, where he took credit for Specter's switch, boasting about how "there isn't a single member of my caucus that knew how far along I had gotten with Senator Specter."

On CNN, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele exploded about how Specter "flip[ped] the bird" at Republicans and was "just downright rude," adding: "I'm sure his mama didn't raise him this way."

Harkin, appearing on MSNBC moments before his swine flu hearing, didn't get to say one word about the virus as he fielded Specter questions.

To his credit, Harkin has pushed for more pandemic-flu spending in the past. But yesterday, his concern about swine flu seemed to center on the swine.

"In my opening statement, I kept referring to it as the 'so-called' swine flu," he informed Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. Harkin, who represents Iowa's large pork industry, suggested that the flu "doesn't necessarily come from pigs" and said that "a more correct terminology for this might be a 'North American virus.' "

When Fauci resisted that suggestion, Harkin tried another. "Why wouldn't it be called an avian virus?" he asked. Finally, Harkin moved on to a question of more importance: "How soon can we get a vaccine?"

"That's a very good point, instead of worrying about names," Fauci answered.

But the name game returned. A witness from the Agriculture Department said the illness "should be called something else" because "pork is safe to eat."

"That's a very important point," said Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, which has its own hog-farming industry.

"Just to be clear," piped up Sen. Mark Pryor, of the pork-producing state of Arkansas, "there are no pigs in the United States that have been affected with this virus?"

Satisfied that all American hogs are healthy, Pryor turned to the more pressing matter of vaccine production. "Do you need any more money to do this?" he asked.

Before the witnesses could answer, Harkin interrupted with a long answer of his own, which led, inevitably, back to the hog farmers. "Now, let me return here," he said, asking the Agriculture Department witness to repeat his assertion that there's "not one single pig in the U.S. that has this particular virus."

"That's why I'm really sorry this seems to have taken on the connotation of swine flu," Harkin said once more. "I opened up the newspaper this morning and there were pictures of pigs and hogs as though all of them were infected."

As the chairman went on about his tender concern for the hog, even the NIH's Fauci couldn't suppress a grin.

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