CAPITOL HILL —
The U.S. Senate approved $1.1 billion to combat the Zika virus – significantly less than the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion request, but almost double the funding being considered in the House of Representatives.
Tuesday’s 68-29 vote came after the Republican-led Senate voted down the White House’s full request, which was made in February as U.S. health officials warned that Zika could spread through large swaths of the nation.
The mosquito-borne virus can cause devastating birth defects and has been linked to a debilitating neurological disorder.
“We need to better control mosquitos that carry the Zika virus. We need to raise awareness to make sure families are informed about this disease, and accelerate the development of a vaccine,” said Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, who co-authored the bipartisan compromise bill.
For weeks, many Republicans insisted they needed more information on how funds would be spent. Some also demanded that other programs be cut to cover the costs of fighting Zika.
“Let’s deal with this threat in a fiscally-responsible way,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas. “There is no reason to gratuitously add to the deficit and the debt.”
Cornyn proposed an alternative of his own that would have siphoned funds from other disease-prevention appropriations to pay for the fight against Zika. Democrats banded together to defeat it, joined by Republican Marco Rubio.
Rubio represents Florida, the state thought to be at greatest immediate risk of a Zika outbreak. He warned that Congress would be held to account if lawmakers shortchange Zika funding and large numbers of Americans fall ill.
“Why take the chance that you are going to have to go home in August and September and explain to millions of people across this country why you were low-balling our approach to it [Zika]?” Rubio asked. “Let’s do this once. Let’s get it right. Let’s ensure that we are protecting our people. Let’s deal with this now.”
The Senate-approved Zika measure faces an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives, where majority-Republicans are considering a proposal to redirect $622 million previously appropriated to fight Ebola. Those funds would be merged with more than $500 million the Obama administration is already siphoning from Ebola programs.
"We're re-prioritizing existing funds to make sure that the Zika attack is fully funded,” said Republican Congressman Steve Scalise.
Regardless of which chamber’s version ultimately reaches President Barack Obama’s desk, the amount Congress approves to fight Zika will be far less than what the White House has requested.
Already, some Democrats are laying the rhetorical groundwork to blame Republicans if federal efforts to contain Zika prove insufficient.
“The virus is coming,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. “And if Republicans block Congress from protecting the people of this country, then Republicans must accept responsibility for the devastating consequences.”
Republicans say such criticism is unfair, noting the Congress is taking action and that the true cost of what will be required to fight Zika is a matter of guesswork at present.