Tricky talks ahead on measures to battle Zika

Republicans who control Congress are negotiating a bill to handle the public health threat posed by the Zika virus

WASHINGTON — Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate are facing tricky negotiations with each other and the White House over how to handle the public health threat posed by the Zika virus.

In the House, a partisan 241-184 vote Wednesday night to pass a $622 million bill to battle the Zika virus puts conservative tea party lawmakers at odds with senators who have embraced a bipartisan compromise that President Barack Obama can live with.

The Senate is scheduled to officially adopt its $1.1 billion version Thursday, though the key action came on Tuesday when the chamber voted to overcome a filibuster hurdle.

The key difference is that House GOP conservatives insisted that the bill include accompanying spending cuts rather than adding its cost to the budget deficit.

Democrats lined up in opposition in a vote Wednesday night, heeding a White House veto threat and warnings from top government health officials that the bill wouldn’t do enough to respond to the growing threat from Zika.

“It’s just not enough,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden said of the House measure. “It doesn’t give Americans the protections they deserve, and with every day of delay it gets harder to do this.” He added, however, that he’s “optimistic that at the end of the day they’re going to do the right thing on Zika.”

Obama requested $1.9 billion three months ago for the fight against Zika, which is spread by mosquitoes and sexual contact and can cause severe birth defects. The Senate is moving ahead this week with a $1.1 billion plan and agreed with Obama that the money should be added to the budget deficit rather than be “offset” with cuts to other programs.

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, which ends Sept. 30. It cuts funds provided in 2014 to fight Ebola to help offset the additional Zika money.

Frieden said in an interview with The Associated Press that the House measure 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.”

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.

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