WASHINGTON -- Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Friday tried to jumpstart the stalled emergency funding process to address the threat of Zika virus, and warned House Republicans that they will attempt to force a hearing on the matter.
With warm weather and mosquito season imminent, little progress has been made in passing the funding health experts seek to combat the bug-borne menace, which officials warned this week is more dire than previously thought.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) recently declared that his committee was working on the drafting the legislation. But he has also complained that the White House hasn't provided significant information about what it wants to do with the money.
From Democrats' perspective, however, the White House has amply explained why it needs $1.9 billion as soon as possible to try to mitigate the Zika threat. Three of them sent Rogers a letter on Friday, noting that committee rules say the chairman has seven business days to call a special meeting if three members demand one, and that the majority of the committee can hold its own if the chairman refuses. They want a meeting on Zika, which they said would allow the administration to explain the requirements.
"It is imperative that the Appropriations Committee move quickly on this potential public health catastrophe and that we provide both short- and long-term resources, to properly prepare our public health system," wrote Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).
It is unlikely that any Republicans would help them reach the majority needed for a special meeting, and Rogers said in a statement that there was no need for more hearings. What is needed, he said, is more cooperation.
"This isn't about politics or optics or finger pointing. This is about a very real crisis that needs our genuine attention," Rogers said. "As I've said many times, including directly to the President, we want to be partners in the fight to stop this terrible disease before it spreads even further."
Part of the problem is that Republicans don't feel as if the White House has adequately explained what the needs are, how much must be spent right away, what funding is required for longer-term needs and how the spending would be accounted for.
The White House announced this week that it was transferring nearly $600 million from the emergency fund Congress passed to combat Ebola, but it still insists the rest of its request needs to be met.
The committee aide said rough estimates -- which are rough because the administration hasn't answered the committee's questions -- indicate the White House has about $2 billion available to deal with immediate needs.
“The information we are seeking doesn't require hearings, it requires thorough, detailed budget documentation that can be the basis for the responsible spending of taxpayer dollars," Rogers said.
“Every day counts in the fight against Zika, and so does every penny we spend," he added. "We must ensure that we are using every dollar the right way and at the right time, to save lives and to prevent Zika from becoming an epidemic within our borders."
If the immediate need does look worse after the administration answers the committee's questions, the aide said Rogers would be open to more emergency spending, although the committee chair seemed to favor including new Zika funding in the budget appropriations for next year, which are starting now.
Congress did pass a measure this week to spur research on a vaccine -- an accomplishment the White House called "meager."
"It's akin to passing out umbrellas in the advance of a potential hurricane," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday. "An umbrella might come in handy, but it's going to be insufficient to ensure that communities all across the country are protected from a potentially significant impact."
What Congress has done is "not going to do anything to help local communities across the country ... fight the mosquitoes that carry this virus. It's not going to expand access to diagnostics that would allow people to more easily get tested and get a prompt result from that test about whether or not they have the Zika virus," Earnest said. "All of these are steps that are critical to ensuring that we're protecting pregnant women and their newborn children from a virus that we know has a potentially devastating impact."