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Bush seeks military option on bird flu

Suggests troops should be sent in if outbreak occurs

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, stirring debate on the worrisome possibility of a bird flu pandemic, suggested dispatching American troops to enforce quarantines in any areas with outbreaks of the killer virus.

Bush asserted aggressive action could be needed to prevent a potentially crippling US outbreak of a bird flu strain that is sweeping through Asian poultry and causing specialists to fear it could become the next deadly pandemic. Citing concern that state and local authorities might be unable to contain such an outbreak, Bush asked Congress to give him the authority to call in the military.

The president has already indicated he wants to give the armed forces lead responsibility for conducting search-and-rescue operations and sending in supplies after massive natural disasters and terrorist attacks -- a strategy that could require a change in law and that some in the Pentagon have reacted to skeptically.

For some, the idea raised the image of soldiers cordoning off communities hit by disease.

''The president ought to have all . . . assets on the table to be able to deal with something this significant," Bush said during a 55-minute question-and-answer session with reporters in the Rose Garden.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and director of its National Center for Disaster Preparedness, called the president's suggestion an ''extraordinarily draconian measure" that would be unnecessary if the nation had built the capability for rapid vaccine production.

''The translation of this is martial law in the United States," Redlener said.

Bush signed an executive order in April adding pandemic influenza to the government's list of communicable diseases for which a quarantine is authorized.

The key question he introduced into the debate yesterday was who would control it: the states, which by law now have the main responsibility for containing an outbreak within their borders, or the federal government, which typically has been in charge of keeping diseases from entering the country.

It was the president's first full-fledged news conference in more than four months, as the White House hopes to regain momentum lost amid sky-high gasoline prices, a rising death roll in Iraq, and a flawed response to Hurricane Katrina. Bush has seen a small rise in his approval ratings, but they remain near the lowest of his presidency.

Despite the polls and recent grumbling about his performance from some Republicans, Bush insisted he still had ''plenty" of political capital that he would spend getting lawmakers to go along with his proposed budget cuts, Iraq strategy, proposals to add to US oil refining capacity, and the reauthorization of the antiterror Patriot Act.

He called for quick confirmation of his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court.

On Katrina, Bush said the federal effort to help evacuees and local communities remains uneven.

He praised his administration's success at handing out $2,000 in immediate cash assistance to some storm victims and in resolving bureaucratic hurdles that had impeded the removal of the Gulf Coast's huge debris piles.

But he said the government could ''probably do a better job" arranging for temporary housing for displaced people and needed to be up to the task of retraining people to fill new jobs.

Responding to fiscal conservatives' sticker shock at the costs of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, Bush called for ''even deeper reductions in the mandatory spending programs than are already planned" to pay for it.

On other topics:

He acknowledged the public had a ''diminished appetite" for overhauling Social Security, a top priority earlier this year that was in trouble before Katrina hit and has nearly completely fallen off the radar in Congress since then.

Bush said the White House has begun the search for a replacement for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, who retires in January, but he hasn't seen names yet.

Bush said he was ''disappointed, frankly, in the vote I got in the African-American community" in November after trying hard to bring it up from the 9 percent he got in 2000. Bush won 11 percent of the black vote in 2004.

Citing the investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's identity that has two White House officials as its focus, Bush declined to say whether he would fire anyone indicted in the probe or whether he has discussed the case with the two officials.

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