At a time when they’re divided on nearly every issue, both parties generally agree money is urgently needed to fight Zika. The only problem: They can’t agree on where to get it.
After lawmakers sent letters requesting briefings on the Zika virus and urging an aggressive approach, the White House this week issued an even bigger ask—more than $1.8 billion—that now puts the onus partly on Congress’s shoulders and leaves a funding battle brewing.
That’s because some Republicans have pointed to possibly using unspent Ebola funds to combat the virus, which may be linked to serious birth defects. But Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said the administration doesn’t want to see the funds diverted—a conversation that will likely crop up at a hearing Thursday on the request.
Both chambers have introduced legislation that would authorize the use of unspent Ebola funds to be used to fight the virus. This unexpended money, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said Wednesday, could help with Zika in the short term, providing lawmakers with the time to deal with any long-term issues through the regular appropriations process.
On the other side of the Capitol, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers said he spoke with the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—as well as Speaker Paul Ryan and relevant subcommittee chairs—but that he is not yet sure how Congress will fund the health crisis.
“We’re checking on all that now,” Rogers said Wednesday. “We’re now exploring what funds are remaining in the Ebola fund and whether any of that could be transferred, and if not where we go from there.”
And Rep. Joe Pitts, the Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee chairman, pointed to the fiscal restraints that go into such a calculation.
“This administration will use any crisis as a springboard to request more money,” the Pennsylvania Republican told National Journal. “They love government programs and spending requests. We’re looking at the issue to try to determine where money might be spent and how to do it most efficiently, but we’re also aware of budget caps.”
But the day after the funding request, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat had a message for Republicans: “If anything qualifies as an emergency that deserves all hands on deck, it’s the spread of viruses like Zika,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said Tuesday at a weekly leadership press conference. “This can’t be a time for partisan politics to get in the way of the solutions that the American people deserve.”
Zika is catching worldwide attention as researchers suspect a link between the virus and microcephaly, a condition causing babies to be born with abnormally small heads and damaged brains. The World Health Organization declared it an international public health emergency. And more recently, the CDC moved its emergency operations center to its highest level of activation.
On Thursday, Congress will respond with a hearing in a Senate Appropriations subcommittee charged with overseeing health agencies, which will focus on the emergency funding request.
Sen. Roy Blunt, the subcommittee’s chairman, pointed to Ebola funds as a possible financial source at a GOP weekly leadership press conference Tuesday. He added: “In addition to that line item, we increased funding for the National Institutes of Health, for CDC, and for a number of other agencies that deal with this kind of thing.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, Senate leaders and top Republicans and Democrats on relevant committees met with Burwell; CDC Director Tom Frieden; and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Coming out of the closed-door meeting, Blunt said he was open to funding but that, in the short term, “the money available in other accounts will meet immediate needs.”
Yet after the meeting, Burwell disagreed with diverting Ebola funds to Zika. “We believe we need to finish the job in terms of Ebola,” she told reporters, adding that the issues needed to be addressed separately.
One of the cosponsors of the House bill to use unspent Ebola funds in the Zika fight, Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan of Florida, came out quickly in support of the administration’s request. His state has declared a public-health emergency in seven counties after at least 16 people were diagnosed with Zika.
“What’s important,” Buchanan’s spokeswoman, Gretchen Andersen, wrote in an email, “is that we invest the appropriate amount of money into heading off the Zika threat before it becomes a full-blown health crisis in the United States.”