WASHINGTON — Shrugging off a veto threat from the White House, the GOP-led House of Representatives approved a $622 million funding package to combat the spread of the Zika virus. The bill passed mostly along party lines, 241-184.
Even with the bill’s passage late on Wednesday evening the effort to send the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies emergency money is still weeks away. That’s because the House measure will have to be reconciled with a $1.1 billion Senate measure that passed on Tuesday. The Obama administration, meanwhile, is continuing to press for the full $1.9 billion in emergency spending it requested in February, and officials continue to criticize Hill Republicans for not responding to what they say is a growing public health crisis.
“This is the specific request that was put forward by our public health experts. They’ve been very clear about what is necessary.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday ahead of the House vote.
House Republicans pointed out that the administration is already using $600 million to address the Zika virus, so the additional money in this bill adds up to over $1 billion dollars being spent this year. They also pledged to have more money in next year’s spending bills specifically for Zika.
“We will have hundreds of millions of dollars in that bill for next year’s Zika response, so to suggest that somebody is being shortchanged — the money is just being prudently laid out at the appropriate pace and paid for along the way,” said Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole, who chairs a key spending panel allocating money to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Democrats complained that the GOP funding measure, unlike the version the Senate approved, takes money from existing federal programs aimed at fighting to Ebola virus and shifts it to deal with Zika. During debate on the House floor they reminded Republicans that they supported previous spending bills that funded responses to natural disasters that didn’t require that those emergency funds be offset with cuts to other programs.
“When those disasters struck, we didn’t steal money from prior disaster response, like the emergency funding provided for hurricane damage in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida; storms in West Virginia; and tornadoes in Oklahoma and Kentucky,” said New York Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, citing a bill approved last year for wildfires in the West and hurricanes on the East Coast.
Earnest piled on the GOP’s decision to use money designated to protect any new threat from Ebola for Zika, calling it “a dumb approach.”
He continued to push for the full $1.9 billion, but did not say the President would veto a bill if it Congress ultimately approved a plan similar to the $1.1 billion one that the Senate passed.
The House Zika legislation will be attached to a separate annual funding bill for veterans and military construction projects. But the vote on that isn’t expected until next week so the talks with the Senate on a final bill won’t happen right away.
The effort to hammer out a final package with the Senate will likely extend into June because Congress is scheduled to leave for a week-long Memorial Day recess at the end of next week.
According to reports from state health agencies 46 states now have confirmed cases of Zika, but the majority of those are from individuals who have traveled to affected countries. So far there are no instances of mosquito transmitted infections in the continental U.S.