House begins tricky discussion on Zika spending

House begins tricky discussion on Zika spending
Posted at 1:33 PM, May 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-19 15:33:04-04

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate on Thursday approved its $1.1 billion plan to combat the Zika virus, setting the stage for difficult negotiations with House Republicans over how much money to devote to fighting the virus and whether to cut Ebola funding to help pay for it.

The 68-30 vote added the Zika measure to an unrelated spending bill and follows party-line passage of a separate $622 million House bill on Wednesday. The White House has signaled that President Barack Obama would accept the Senate compromise measure but has issued a veto threat on the House bill, saying it doesn't provide enough money.

The Zika virus can cause severe birth defects and can be spread by mosquitoes and sexual contact. The most recent statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say more than 500 people in the continental U.S. have contracted the virus. So far, U.S. cases are travel-related but it is feared the virus will spread more widely as mosquito season heats up.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden said in an interview with The Associated Press that the House measure is "just not enough" and would hamper the CDC's ability to monitor women and babies with the virus over coming years, fight the mosquitoes that spread it, and develop better diagnostic tests.

"This is an unprecedented situation," Frieden said. "We've never had a situation before where a single mosquito bite could result in you giving birth to a child with a terrible birth defect that could change the rest of your life."

The Senate broke a filibuster of the legislation on Tuesday. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., played a key role in the outcome. The underlying bill, funding transportation, veterans and housing programs, easily passed shortly after the vote on Zika. The House passed a companion veterans spending bill on Thursday as well.

The key difference between the competing versions is that House GOP conservatives insisted that spending cuts accompany the measure rather than adding its cost to the budget deficit. Obama and the Senate want to declare Zika an emergency and add the funding on top of current budget limits. The House bill also only provides enough money to fight Zika through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year.

Obama requested $1.9 billion three months ago for the fight against Zika.

Democrats and the White House have been hammering at Republicans for dragging their feet on Zika, but the political tempest in Washington hasn't been matched by fear among the public, at least according to recent polling. GOP leaders see a political imperative to act as the summer mosquito season heats up.

The House bill, however, provides one-third of the request and limits the use of the money to the current budget year. To help offset the additional Zika money, the bill cuts funds provided in 2014 to fight Ebola.

When Congress didn't act on Obama's request, he devoted almost $600 million in previous appropriations, mostly leftover funding from the recent and successful effort to fight Ebola, to combat Zika. Republicans had pressed for the funding shift as a first step to battle Zika and they say the pending measure will carry the battle at least through the current budget year.

"We are allocating more resources immediately for critical priorities such as vaccine development and mosquito control," said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "This is in addition to the existing resources that we called for the administration to use earlier this year."

On Tuesday, the Senate advanced a $1.1 billion measure to fight Zika that earned sweeping support from Democrats even though it's less than the White House request. It is soon to be added to an unrelated spending bill, which adds a procedural wrinkle since the House bill will advance as a separate stand-alone measure.

The White House says the House plan is woefully inadequate and has threatened to veto it. Asked Wednesday about the compromise Senate measure, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, "I don't have a veto threat to issue."

In fact, the Senate measure and the Obama request are fairly similar when it comes to how much money to spend on Zika; the main difference is that the president wants back the almost $600 million he diverted last month from the Ebola battle and other accounts. That money is being used to conduct research on the virus and Zika-related birth defects, create response teams to limit Zika's spread, and help other countries fight the virus.