Republican lawmakers to push $1.1 billion in new Zika funds

WASHINGTON Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate agreed on Wednesday to $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus, a House Republican lawmaker said, shortchanging President Barack Obama’s funding request and angering Democrats by making other cuts to pay for it.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said funding would be for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. He said he hoped a vote on the measure could be held in the next day or two. Obama has requested $1.9 billion.

“With the threat of Zika virus to pregnant women especially, we must pass this bill before we leave town” this week for a ten-day recess, Rogers told reporters.

But the White House said the allocation fell short.

“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,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.

Earnest said the Republican plan would limit needed birth control services for women seeking to prevent Zika, which can be spread through unprotected sex — “a clear indication they don’t take seriously the threat from the Zika virus.”

Democrats have been urging Republicans for months to agree to more Zika funding; the White House first requested $1.9 billion in February. To fight Zika, the administration has already reprogrammed nearly $600 million that had been set aside to fight Ebola.

House Democrats said they would not go along with the deal because of $750 million in budget cuts elsewhere that the Republicans want to use to pay for the Zika spending.

Representative Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, and other Democrats said the Republican agreement “provides an insufficient amount, and offsets a portion of this funding by cutting other critically needed public health resources.”

Senate Democrats also voiced displeasure, clouding the outlook for it passing the Senate even if it gets through the House.

“A narrowly partisan proposal that cuts off women’s access to birth control, shortchanges veterans and rescinds Obamacare funds to cover the cost is not a serious response to the threat from the Zika virus,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said in a statement.

Rogers said that $543 million of the $1.1 billion would come from unspent funds that had been set aside for implementing Obamacare in U.S. territories, while $107 million would come from unused funds to fight another virus, Ebola. Another $100 million would come from unused administrative funds at the Department of Health and Human Services, he said.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Roperta Rampton; Editing by Michael Perry; Writing by Eric Beech; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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