Senate Easily Advances $1.1 Billion in Zika Funding

WASHINGTON (AP) -
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen in a mosquito cage at a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan, File)
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen in a mosquito cage at a laboratory in Cucuta, Colombia. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan, File)

The Senate voted decisively on Tuesday in favor of a bipartisan $1.1 billion measure to combat the Zika virus this year and next, cutting back President Barack Obama’s request but offering significantly more money to fight Zika than would House GOP conservatives.

The 68-29 vote propelled the measure over a filibuster and sets the stage to add the Zika funding to an unrelated spending bill. It comes three months after Obama requested $1.9 billion to battle the virus, which can cause severe birth defects.

“We see the people of this country facing a public health threat,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who supports the full Obama request. “Our response should be ‘Let’s deal with it the way that medical experts are saying we need to deal with it.'”

A showdown looms with the House, which is scheduled to debate its $622 million anti-Zika measure on Wednesday. The House would fund the Zika battle for a shorter duration – through September – and is “offset” with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

The Senate vote came after Republicans blocked a measure matching Obama’s request and after Democrats killed a GOP-backed proposal to cut into Obama’s health care law to pay for battling Zika.

Obama requested the funding in February and has been forced to tap unspent 2015 funds from the successful battle against Ebola to finance almost $600 million in anti-Zika efforts. They include research on the virus and Zika-related birth defects, response teams to limit Zika’s spread, and helping other countries fight the virus.

The House measure, slated for a vote as early as Wednesday, will advance as a stand-alone bill and it could prove challenging to forge a compromise out of the two chambers’ significantly different versions.

The White House issued a veto threat on the House measure on Tuesday, saying it is “woefully inadequate” and protested that it would only fund the Zika battle through Sept. 30.

“It is woefully insufficient given the significant risk that is posed by Zika,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “The House of Representatives is three months late and more than a billion short.”

Republicans are sensitive to perceptions that they’ve dragged their feet on Zika and say that the government’s efforts to fight the virus have not been delayed.

“No one should think that spending money on Zika has been held back because the Congress is just now moving forward,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., co-author of the compromise measure.

The White House and its Democratic allies have been sharply critical of Republicans controlling Congress over delays in providing additional funds, which they say is required for mosquito control, purchasing diagnostic tests and developing and manufacturing a vaccine.