CAPITOL HILL - The battle over Zika funding took a new turn as the U.S. House approved $622 million in funding for the crisis late Wednesday, following a floor debate and a 241-184 vote that fell almost entirely along partisan lines.
Democratic members of Congress expressed their frustration about the limitations of a Republican-sponsored bill addressing the Zika health crisis, criticizing the bill for providing only a third of the White House’s request and for stopping at the end of the 2016 Federal fiscal year this September.
“Let me assure you — mosquitoes and diseases do not follow the Congressional budget calendar,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Florida said Wednesday.
Timing in addressing the Zika crisis has been a major source of conflict during the debate. The U.S. Congress has been slow to respond to funding for the Zika crisis since President Barack Obama’s request for $1.9 billion in February.
“The president has requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to combat the Zika outbreak, but that is not what House Republicans brought to the Floor today,” Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said Wednesday.
“Instead, they're putting forward legislation that would provide just $622 million, less than a third, as I said. That means we can't fully fund development of a vaccine, deployment of diagnostic testing, especially for pregnant women, and vector control to manage mosquito populations,” said Hoyer.
Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky who sponsored the legislation, defended the proposal, arguing Wednesday “This is wholly adequate, it’s more than adequate in terms of money.”
In a statement earlier in the week when he introduced the legislation, Chairman Rogers said, “We have made our own funding determinations, using what information is available and through discussions with federal agencies, to craft a proposal to fight the spread of this damaging disease.”
The lack of decisiveness can have a very real impact on emergency health preparedness, according to J. Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“In these kinds of emergencies, it’s essential that there be strong bi-partisan consensus,” he said.
Morrison said the president’s $1.9-billion funding request “is a completely justifiable first step in what is likely to be a much bigger, longer term response.”
He said the House bill not only falls short by allocating only a third of the president’s request, it also takes money away from other emergency health preparedness initiatives — including Ebola research — that is needed in the United States and abroad.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement on the bill’s passage Wednesday that he would “work with the Senate to get the needed resources to the president’s desk.”
The Senate voted 68-29 Tuesday to allocate $1.1 billion, although the source of that funding is unclear. The Senate’s measure, which includes $850 million for Health and Human Services to fight Zika domestically, and $250 million for efforts abroad, was attached to a larger spending bill for House consideration Thursday. Unlike the House bill, the Senate version appropriates new funds rather than raiding other programs to pay for it. The fact that it would increase the deficit makes the Senate bill far less attractive to fiscal conservatives in the House.
The White House, however, has called Rep. Rogers’ bill “woefully inadequate” and Obama vowed to veto it.
“Our concerns about the Republican proposal in the House are many,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in a press briefing earlier Wednesday before the vote.
Earnest said the White House was concerned about the $1.3-billion shortfall.
“The approach that Republicans have advocated for in the House is wrong, it's unwise, and it is inconsistent with prioritizing the public health and wellbeing of the American people,” he said.
According to the CDC, more than 500 people are infected with the Zika virus in the United States, including 48 pregnant women.
“Our nation has no time to waste,” said a coalition of 60 health and medical organizations in an open letter to Congress calling for more funding.
“This initiative fails to provide appropriate resources to address any of the needed public health efforts to protect pregnant women and their infants from Zika virus,” the statement said.
Morrison said the U.S. Congress response may not be adjusting to the reality of the Zika threat.
“People are adjusting their behavior as individuals across the political spectrum, but that’s not translating into action in the [U.S.] House.”
Carol Pearson contributed to this report