WASHINGTON -- Democrats spent much of Wednesday reminding Republicans that mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus are now spreading to the U.S. In fact, there are already a good number present in 30 states.
“The mosquitoes are coming,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) told reporters. “The mosquitoes are already here. You can’t build a fence to keep them out, and the mosquitoes won’t pay for it. The mosquitoes are here -- this is not a [President Barack] Obama fantasy.”
A handful of House Democrats joined their Senate counterparts to put pressure on Republicans regarding a $1.9 billion request by the White House to combat the virus, which causes microcephaly and other fetal brain defects.
Senate Republicans signaled interest last week in working with Democrats to push through emergency funding for Zika, which is threatening thousands of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week that appropriators are working to get to the right number. Republicans are floating less than the amount Obama requested, but more than $1 billion.
Democrats want the full amount. With little chance of a vote on emergency funding ahead of Congress' break next week, Democrats lined up to vent their frustrations.
“Senate Republicans finally said last week they were willing to work with us,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “I was encouraged by our conversations. But it has been nearly a week since we have had those conversations.”
Republicans are now trying to find offsets for emergency Zika funding to appease members within their conference, and are also considering attaching Zika funds to the appropriations process. Democrats are opposed to both approaches, arguing that the appropriations process is too slow and that offsets are unnecessary.
“If this is not an emergency, there is nothing that is,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “No floods, no earthquake, no fire, nothing will be an emergency if this isn’t.”
Reid added that he has yet to see a piece of paper with a specific dollar amount from Republicans. He wouldn’t say whether Democrats would accept a slightly smaller amount than what they've already asked for.
“We are down to budget priorities that cannot be cut further,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.
“We are less than 100 days out from the Olympics in Brazil,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). “We should have acted long ago. This is a true emergency.”
Brazil has been devastated by the virus, recording 91,000 new cases of Zika this year alone.
Speaking to The Huffington Post, DeLauro added that health officials have voiced serious concern over the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“Our athletes will be frightened when they go,” DeLauro said. “Their families will be frightened. If there is anything that can be determined between now and then that they can avail themselves of in order to protect themselves, then let’s get to it.”
The only way athletes and others traveling to Brazil will be prepared, DeLauro said, is if emergency money is made available for research, diagnostics and vaccines.
What kind of tone are health officials displaying in meetings? DeLauro summed it up in one word -- "anxiety."
Earlier this month, officials said they would start to redirect over $500 million that Congress had already approved to battle Ebola. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that if Congress did not provide emergency money for Zika, officials would need to dip into pots for research on malaria and tuberculosis.