Republican lawmakers grant $1.1 billion for Zika fight

Congress | Amid Democratic protest, GOP passes funding to defend public health
Posted 6/23/16, 04:08 pm

WASHINGTON—The House passed a Republican bill early Thursday morning that gave $1.1 billion to the Zika virus crisis, angering the White House and Democrats with the bill’s budget-cuts and limited funding.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the bill “important progress in our efforts to protect Americans from the Zika virus.”

Ryan called for the vote to halt the Democrats’ heated gun-control protest in the House. At 3 a.m. Thursday morning, the House voted on several bills waiting to be passed this week and approved the Zika crisis funding 239-171.

The Zika virus is spread primarily through mosquito bites. The virus can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her baby and cause serious birth defects and neurological disorders.

The funding plan gives $230 million to the National Institutes of Health for creating a vaccine and $476 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to work toward mosquito control. The plan is similar to what many global health advocacy groups are already trying to do.

“[Zika] is a serious threat because it’s a new disease for most people,” World Health Organization spokesman Daniel Epstein told me. “The best weapon we have against Zika is mosquito control … and then we are also focusing on presenting and managing the medical complications caused by Zika.”

The move denied Democrats the opportunity to vote on gun-control legislation, which already failed to pass in the Senate on Monday.

During the vote, Democrats kept up their “sit-in” to advocate for gun control. Democrats also critiqued the Zika plan, saying it included unnecessary legislation. The bill includes a provision blocking extra funding from going to Planned Parenthood for birth-control services for women at risk of Zika infection.

It’s unknown when the funding for the Republican bill will be approved or put into action. Democrats plan to halt the legislation in the Senate because the bill cuts $750 million from other healthcare programs to pay for the plan. Democrats claim it’s wrong to cut spending in order to pay for public health issues while not requiring spending cuts for emergencies like wildfires, floods, or the Ebola virus.

According to the House Appropriations Committee, the administration’s initial request did not require enough oversight, so this bill puts tight control on spending to make sure the money is used appropriately.

“We’ve been working for a while to get the Zika bill worked out. It is finally worked out,” said Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.

In February, President Barack Obama asked Congress to designate $1.9 billion in funding for the Zika crisis. But the White House has critiqued the Republican-led legislation, saying it’s untimely and insufficient.

“This plan from congressional Republicans is four months late and nearly a billion dollars short of what our public health experts have said is necessary to do everything possible to fight the Zika virus—and steals funding from other health priorities,” Josh Ernest, White House press secretary, said in a statement.

In April, the first American died from complications related to the Zika virus in Puerto Rico, heightening the national sense urgency to respond to the epidemic.