Congress left Washington for its Memorial Day break without financing a plan to combat Zika, despite increasingly dire warnings from public health officials that the mosquito-driven virus could spread rapidly as summer approaches.
Republican leaders insist that a deal can be struck as soon as mid-June to provide federal health officials with the money they say is needed to develop a vaccine. GOP leaders played down the risk of waiting, arguing that current funding is sufficient for health officials to take initial steps to contain the virus.
“There’s money in the pipeline that’s already going out the door right now,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters this week.
Still, Democrats are accusing Republicans of neglecting the Zika threat, which is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies. And some GOP lawmakers – especially those who represent Florida and other warm-weather locales, where the mosquitoes that could transmit the virus are already active – are growing increasingly anxious about the lack of action.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “is saying we’re less than a month away from a mosquito [epidemic] in the U.S. I mean, I take that seriously,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the onetime Republican presidential contender, said this week. “These are not politicians. These are scientists and doctors that are looking at this issue and telling us, you’ve got a real problem on your hands.”
Last week, U.S. health officials said they were monitoring nearly 300 pregnant American women with likely Zika infections in U.S. states and territories, and warned of growing concerns about a large outbreak in Puerto Rico. U.S. health officials are also tracking the virus in South America, particularly in Brazil, where hundreds of thousands of visitors will descend in August for the Summer Olympics – and potentially spread the virus when they return to their home countries.
On Friday, more than 100 prominent physicians, bioethicists and scientists from around the world urged the World Health Organization to pressure Olympic officials to delay the Games or move them from Rio de Janeiro because of the Zika threat.
“If Rio is going to happen, the world deserves a full discussion of why and at what potential risks and liabilities,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University and one of four authors of a letter sent to WHO Director General Margaret Chan.
U.S. health officials have discounted the risk posed by the Summer Games.
“We don’t see from a public health standpoint any reason to cancel the Olympics,” Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said in an interview this week.
Frieden and other health officials say a far more pressing matter is getting Congress to quickly provide funding so they can prepare in earnest for the spread of the virus in the United States.
But instead of racing to head off a potential health crisis, lawmakers have been treating the Zika request like normal legislation, moving at their usual snail’s pace. Before they left town Thursday, lawmakers moved to create a joint committee to hammer out differences between the two chambers over Zika financing and other matters.
In response to the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion Zika request, the Senate approved $1.1 billion in funding earlier this month while the House has passed legislation that would provide $622 million, which would be drawn from money already set aside for Ebola programs.
In April, the administration redirected an initial flow of more than $500 million from Ebola funds to begin the battle against Zika as it pressed Congress to act quickly on President Obama’s larger funding request. Democrats do not approve of pulling more money from the leftover Ebola account, because the initial plan two years ago called for any remaining funds to be spent helping nations overseas prepare to fight the deadly disease in the future.
In public briefings and private meetings with lawmakers health officials have cited evidence linking Zika to a rare condition causing children to be born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. Hundreds of babies in Brazil have suffered this condition, and the outbreak that has spread to three dozen countries, primarily in the Americas.
Instead of racing to fund efforts to thwart a potential health crisis, lawmakers are treating the Zika debate like regular legislation, approving Thursday the establishment of a House-Senate committee to hammer out differences in their competing bills.
Democrats have criticized the Republicans for weeks on the slow response, culminating with a media showcase Thursday on the House steps demanding that the traditional Memorial Day recess be eliminated so lawmakers could finish the issue next week.
“Republicans are going to do it again: take a week off and not going to worry about those pesky mosquitoes,” Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid, D-Nevada, said during a floor speech.
But an influential bloc of conservatives remain committed to reining in government spending, demanding cuts from other portions of the budget before allowing increased funds to battle Zika. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, a fiscal hawk, called it “weak” policy to just push $1 billion more into the effort without any assurance of the outcome, without some corresponding cuts to other federal programs.
“The big disagreement that we have and the difficulty we deal with is,” Sessions said, “should every time a billion-dollar or $2 billion project comes along, do we just borrow the money?”
Some Republicans also harbor such distrust of Obama — from executive actions on immigration, transgender issues in schools, overtime rules and other issues — that they are hesitant to release money to his administration.
These conservatives have reservations about how the government spent funds two years ago battling the Ebola outbreak, which was largely considered a success because of its very limited impact in the United States.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, a leader of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, called the Ebola response “certainly a success” but said that much of the roughly $2.7 billion in those funds was not spent in the most “prudent and logical manner.”
That has led conservatives to issue many more questions about how administration officials intend to spend any Zika money.
“Not having a real plan, where that’s spent and how it’s spent, is troubling and something that has to be addressed,” Meadows said.
Others said there is just not the same level of immediacy and understanding of this virus as there was of Ebola, where thousands of Africans were dying within weeks of contracting it, and Zika moves more slowly and federal officials also have yet to formally announce a single domestic case.
Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Florida, cited another, more basic rationale for his inability to win over more support from his colleagues: Washington’s unusually cold, wet spring.
“That actually may have played a role in it,” said Rooney, who supports higher funding levels but suggested the weather pushed mosquitoes to the back of lawmakers’ minds.
“Now it’s hot here,” Rooney said Wednesday outside the Capitol as the temperature crested 80 degrees, hoping his colleagues would now see the light.
Ryan and his closest allies have grown angry at the Democratic allegations that they are neglecting the issue. “To say that we are not sympathetic, understanding and balanced on the Zika issue would be wrong,” said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, chairman of the Rules Committee.
Still, some Republicans fear the worst outcome, both in terms of public health and what it could mean for them politically.
“Obviously in South Florida where I’m from the problem is going to intensify,” Rooney said. “Hopefully not to the point where it’s some kind of an epidemic that if we don’t get something done we are culpable for not acting on this.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Paul Kane, Mike DeBonis