Obama to name longtime political aide as 'Ebola czar,' bypassing senior health official

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Responding to growing calls to appoint an "Ebola czar" to lead America's battle against the deadly virus, President Obama plans to name Ron Klain, a longtime political hand with no apparent medical or health care background.

He did, however, serve as chief of staff to Al Gore and later Vice President Biden.

In making the appointment, Obama will effectively bypass another official, Dr. Nicole Lurie, who has served as assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services since July 2009.

Congress, nearly a decade ago, created that post, which would seem to fit the bill for Ebola coordinator -- at least on paper.

Yet, as Obama prepares to name Klain, the senior official currently filling that health job has been virtually absent from the public eye. She's on the team, the Obama administration insists -- just not in the lead.

A spokesman with HHS told Fox News that in addition to roles played by other agencies, "Dr. Lurie and her team in ASPR are dealing primarily with advance development of countermeasures, [Public Health Service] deployment, and hospital outreach."

In other words, Lurie is part of the cast but by no means a central character.

At least one lawmaker, though, pinpointed her post as the one that should be in charge of the whole operation.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., remembered that Congress had created such a point person in 2006 with the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act.

When asked in an Oct. 13 interview on MSNBC if he thought the administration needed an Ebola "czar," Casey said, "I don't, because under the bill we have such a person in HHS already."

On Friday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., praised Obama for naming a point person, but questioned why he "didn't pick an individual with a noteworthy infectious disease or public health background." He did not mention Lurie, though.

The mission of the assistant secretary, according to the HHS website, "is to lead the nation in preventing, responding to and recovering from the adverse health effects of public health emergencies and disasters, ranging from hurricanes to bioterrorism." Within their authority, the assistant secretary also "develops and procures needed [medical countermeasures], including vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and non-pharmaceutical countermeasures, against a broad array of public health threats, whether natural or intentional in origin."

In one profile, Lurie was called the "highest-ranking federal official in charge of preparing the nation to face such health crises as earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and pandemic influenza."

In the interview for Penn Medicine, Lurie is described as dealing intimately with major health issues and disasters, including the Boston Marathon bombing and Hurricane Sandy.

But little has been published about her work during the current Ebola crisis, despite it being presumably within the purview of her mission. The ASPR website homepage makes no mention of the Ebola virus.

In an interview with The Washington Post in September, Lurie touched on her role over Ebola, saying her agency is partnering with others to ensure health care workers have the "information they need to be prepared to identify and treat Ebola infections" and is working with others to accelerate vaccine testing.

Regarding the Klain appointment, a White House official said Friday that he comes to the job with "strong management credentials, extensive federal government experience overseeing complex operations and good working relationships with leading members of Congress, as well as senior Obama administration officials, including the president."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called him an "excellent choice." (White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stressed Friday that Klain's position is not being referred to as "czar.")

Lurie comes with some baggage.

In 2011, she was cited in a congressional investigation of a controversial no-bid contract given to New York-based Siga Technologies Inc., to develop a small pox vaccine some experts at the time felt was unnecessary. The senior stakeholder of Siga, which received $443 million to develop the drug, was Ronald O. Perelman, a billionaire and longtime political donor.

The investigation at one point focused on a favorable letter that Lurie, who had overseen the bid process, had written to Siga's chief executive. She later said the bid was awarded strictly on merit.

Ironically, some of the calls for an Ebola "czar" came from Republicans that previously hammered the administration over its many centralized-power positions that informally carried that name.

During Obama's first term in office, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., joined a host of Republicans in criticizing the president's appointment of numerous so-called "czars," some of which do not require Senate approval. "Obama has more czars than the Romanovs," McCain snarked in a 2009 tweet, referring to the pre-revolutionary Russian dynasty.

But in an interview on Sunday, McCain called for one to handle the Ebola crisis. "I'd like to know who's in charge," McCain said on CNN.

Earlier this month, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said he hated the term, but a "czar" is in order to "lead" and "unify" the prevailing government efforts. Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, has said a "central coordinator," is necessary. He joined Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who wrote to the president asking for a single "senior advisor" in charge. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., also said it was "critical" for the government to have one point person for Ebola.

While previously pushing back on calls for a "czar," the White House had assured there are "clear lines of authority" among HHS, the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Defense, departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services and other agencies, all working here and in West Africa to coordinate security and health efforts.

Earlier this week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest touted the role of White House adviser Lisa Monaco. He has never mentioned Dr. Lurie specifically in the White House briefings.

In the meantime, Drs. Anthony Fauci and Tom Frieden of the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and CDC respectively, have been the two most consistent public faces before the cameras since the first Ebola patients were treated in the United States this summer.

A rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, Lurie has served in both the private and public sector, at both the federal and state levels, including a stint as medical adviser to the commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Health, and as a professor in the University of Minnesota School of Medicine.

No matter how "integrated" the efforts, however, the approach was not impressing lawmakers who wanted one clear voice among what they say is a growing din. "The White House has done little over the past few weeks to inspire the confidence of Texans," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, referring to the second nurse diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas this week, "and the time for the administration to act is now."

Fox News' Chad Pergram contributed to this report.