House Zika Bill Is $1.3 Billion Short Of Obama's Request

The White House sought $1.9 billion in February. The House is aiming to give $622 million.

WASHINGTON -- Congress is finally moving to supply the nation's disease control experts with funding to prevent the spread of Zika in the United States, but the House of Representatives is offering only about a third of the money sought by the Obama administration.

After the Senate put three competing bills on its calendar for this week -- with minimum funding of $1.1 billion -- the House Appropriations Committee announced plans for a $622 million measure.

In February, President Barack Obama asked lawmakers for $1.9 billion to ramp up a host of efforts, from mosquito mitigation to education and vaccine research.

The Zika virus has been conclusively shown to cause microcephaly and other birth defects when it infects pregnant women. It's also strongly suspected of causing other problems, such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

The administration had hoped to use the money it requested to help fund a massive response, particularly ahead of the warmer months when the mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus breed and spread.

But Republican leaders in Congress expressed doubts about the funding requests, and said the White House has failed to present an adequate plan or answer questions about how the money will be spent.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) cited the disagreement as his reason for coming up with a smaller Zika budget, saying the House nevertheless wants to ensure that some funds are available.

“Given the severity of the Zika crisis and the global health threat, we cannot afford to wait on the administration any longer," he said in a statement. "We have made our own funding determinations, using what information is available and through discussions with federal agencies, to craft a proposal to fight the spread of this damaging disease."

“This legislation will make dollars available to fight the disease now, prioritizing critical activities that must begin immediately, such as vaccine development and mosquito control," Rogers added. "The legislation funds these efforts in a responsible way, using existing resources -- including excess funding left over from the Ebola outbreak -- to pay for it."

The administration had already transferred nearly $600 million from the Ebola effort and other programs to fund its response. Rogers said the committee will consider additional funding not as an emergency, but in the regular appropriations process for 2017, which is underway now.

“Every child deserves the chance at a full and healthy life, and every mother deserves to see her child thrive," Rogers said. "This measure will help make sure this happens, while doing it in an effective, efficient, and responsible way."

Rogers' comments suggest Republicans realize combatting the disease will likely cost more, but also that they are not impressed with the administration's arguments against piecemeal funding, which it has said makes the response more difficult to administer.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the GOP proposal is woefully inadequate.

"That is essentially the bureaucratic equivalent of digging through sofa cushions to try to come up with the necessary money," he said in his daily briefing. "Our public health professionals shouldn't be reduced to doing that."

Earnest said he expects "widespread public reporting" about the threat of the Zika virus in the United States this summer, and that people wondering why the government didn't effectively plan to protect people from the virus should pose their questions to Congress.

"My answer will be, we've been trying," he said.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the highest-ranking Democrat on the appropriations committee, was also underwhelmed.

"The majority's decision to underfund the President's request by $1.3 billion risks worsening an already severe crisis," she said in a statement. "Without full funding, private sector work on vaccines and diagnostic testing will be delayed due to the lack of multi-year funding commitments. State and local public health emergency preparedness grants will be underfunded, hampering efforts to control mosquito populations. Failing to replenish Ebola accounts will force us to renege on commitments to fortify public health systems and hurt our ability to respond to new outbreaks."

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan said later that the $622 million House bill should be counted on top of the money the Obama administration has already shifted from Ebola, effectively making the total $1.2 billion.

This story has been updated to include comment from Ryan's spokeswoman.

Jen Bendery contributed reporting.

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