Parties Split on How to Fund the Zika Fight

Republicans want to divert unspent Ebola money, but the Obama administration is wary.

Angelica Pereira holds her daughter Luiza, who was born with microcephaly, outside her house in Santa Cruz do Capibaribe, Pernambuco state, Brazil, on Saturday. The Zika virus, spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is suspected to be linked with occurrences of microcephaly in newborn babies.
AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Feb. 10, 2016, 8 p.m.

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.”

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