PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Trying to leverage his sky-high personal popularity into support for the spending proposals contained in his $2.13 trillion budget proposal, President Bush traveled to Pittsburgh Tuesday to see what federal money can buy in the way of anti-bioterror defenses.
The president's budget commits $6 billion to defend against bioterrorism, an increase of over 300 percent from the previous year. In all homeland security, funding is going up $18 billion to $38 billion, which will be added to the Defense Department budget.
"It's money that we've got to spend. It's money that'll have a good impact on the country. It's money that will enable me to say that we're doing everything we can to protect America at home," Bush told a group of medical researchers in the Masonic Temple at the University of Pittsburgh.
Earlier in the day, led by a medical biologist and a professor of pathology, Bush toured the university medical center's RODS program, which stands for "real-time outbreak and disease surveillance system."
RODS is essentially a computer network run by the Defense Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that links 17 Pittsburgh-area hospitals, and monitors the symptoms of up to 1,000 patients.
White House aides said the system could save up to two weeks' time in identifying a large-scale infectious disease outbreak.
The president was also shown some non-virulent anthrax microbes under a microscope.
Bush told some 300 people in the audience that the budget would add $2.4 billion to develop new test protocols and new treatments for bioterror weapons to prevent any more deaths from bioterror attacks such as last October's anthrax attack, which killed five people.
"We were able to save lives during the anthrax outbreak, but some infections were identified too late and some people were too badly infected to save," Bush said. "We must do everything in our power, everything to protect our fellow Americans. We need better testing, better vaccines and better drugs if America is going to be as safe as it can possibly be."
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have already said they would support the president's homeland security and defense spending priorities. That position was reinforced Tuesday at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.
This is an organizational challenge as much as anything else," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space.
The committee heard from state and private medical experts who said preparedness is the best remedy for countering bioterror.
"Merely having assets does not make them useful," Richard Hatchett, coordinator for the Civilian Medical Reserve Working Group, told the subcommittee. "Assets become valuable when they are organized."
Wyden said he wants to streamline the maze of bureaucracy that private firms encounter when offering to help the government with new technologies to detect and treat pathogens. At least 20 federal departments, from Health and Human Services to the Department of Defense, are charged with fighting the bioterror threat.
While Bush has widespread support for some priorities, he may not get as much backing over his administration's investigation into the Enron scandal.
During his tour of that laboratory, Bush was asked about remarks made Monday by Democratic Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina, who called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate contacts between the Bush administration and bankrupt energy trading firm Enron.
Bush said he saw no need for an Enron special counsel, a decision backed by the Justice Department Monday.
"I see a need for laws and I see a need for a full investigation, and that's what we're providing. The Justice Department is gathering information, and we're going to determine whether there was any wrongdoing and if there is, there will be consequences. In the meantime, I've sent up pension reform legislation that Congress needs to get after. It's a good piece of legislation, it will help workers, and we ought to do it now," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.