The first cracks appeared Wednesday in the congressional stalemate on appropriating funds to combat the Zika virus, as an Obama administration official compared a bipartisan bill on its way to the president’s desk to “passing out umbrellas in the advance of a potential hurricane.”
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded this week that Zika causes microcephaly, an incurable neurological disorder that impairs brain and skull growth in utero, as well as other severe fetal brain defects.
“An umbrella might come in handy, but it’s going to be insufficient to ensure that communities all across the country are protected from a potentially significant impact,” White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said during a Wednesday press briefing.
The legislation, S. 2512, would add the Zika virus to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) priority review voucher program in an effort to incentivize vaccine production. The bill does not include any funding provisions. The U.S. Senate passed the legislation in March, and the U.S. House of Representatives followed suit this week.
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“I’m not prepared to give Congress credit for that legislation,” Earnest said. “It is a positive step, but it is a far cry from what our public health experts tell us is necessary to prepare for the situation.”
Congressional Republicans have thus far stonewalled President Obama’s $1.9 billion supplemental appropriations request to combat Zika, prompting the administration to turn last week to leftover Ebola funding. The $589 million, the bulk from the Ebola pot, will be used for “immediate, time-critical activities” to combat Zika, but isn’t enough to develop a comprehensive response, according to the administration.
At an April 13 legislative markup, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, offered the administration’s $1.9 billion Zika request as an amendment to an unrelated fiscal year 2017 military construction and veterans affairs spending bill.
“Instead of providing the funding that is needed to mount a robust response against the Zika virus, we have forced the administration to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Lowey said. “With nearly 1,000 Ebola contacts still under observation, we do not have the luxury, my friends, of responding either to Zika or Ebola. We must do both.”
Although Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) shot down Lowey’s attempt, he said his committee staff is working on a supplemental Zika bill for fiscal year 2016, reversing his stance that Ebola funding would suffice.
Rogers maintained that the administration must first tap into all unobligated Ebola funds, which he said amount to $2 billion. Rogers’ fiscal year 2017 agriculture appropriations bill puts $10 million toward Zika and Ebola through the FDA.
Rogers said the administration also needs to detail what, how, and when any potential funding will be used in the fight against Zika. He likened the initial $1.9 billion request to a “slush fund.”
“If we can get the administration to give us the numbers, we’ll be happy to file that supplemental bill,” Rogers said.
Lowey countered Rogers’ allegations, adding that she has seen the numbers. “It’s my understanding that the administration responded to your letter,” Lowey said. “I personally will contact the administration today.”