The White House continues to raise the volume on its alarm regarding the Zika virus. Administration officials urged Congress more than two months ago to approve a $1.9 billion emergency response package, and so far, the Republican-led House and Senate haven’t agreed to spend a dime.
Indeed, as we discussed two weeks ago, Republican lawmakers have instead urged the administration to use $600 million that had been allocated to combat Ebola. The trouble, of course, is that this money (a) is far short of the $1.9 billion needed, and (b) is still being used to address Ebola in West Africa.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations health subcommittee, told NBC News yesterday he’s working on a deal with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and some of those involved are optimistic a bill will come together before the week ends.
But even if that comes to fruition, there’s still the far-right House majority to deal with. The New York Times reported yesterday that the stakeholders face “a challenge in figuring out how to package the deal so that it can win passage in the House, where hard-line conservatives have repeatedly balked at new government spending.”
Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, a Republican and the majority leader, maintained on Tuesday that the best way to address the Zika virus was through the regular appropriations process. But he said Republicans needed to know more about the Obama administration’s plans before they could move.“We have a number of questions that the appropriators have asked for, like what would the money be spent on this year, what is the money you need for next year, where are we on the vaccine?” he told reporters on Tuesday. “None of these have been answered.”
In response, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, said, “There’s no excuse for them having those unanswered questions when you consider that we’ve already put forward a detailed legislative proposal more than two months ago now. We’ve already participated in 48 hearings in which questions about Zika have been raised. There have been briefings that have been convened by senior administration officials for both the House and the Senate to discuss this issue.
“So, I guess what I would say to members of Congress who say that they have questions about the administration’s Zika strategy: That ignorance is not an excuse.”
In case anyone’s wondering if Earnest is correct, the full, 25-page spending request is available online – where it’s been for months while Congress has largely ignored the issue – and it’s a pretty detailed document.
It’s worth noting that the divisions on this issue don’t fall neatly along predictable lines. The Hill noted, for example, that congressional Republicans themselves remain “split on whether to provide emergency funding to fight the Zika virus.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who never saw an Obama administration proposal he didn’t reflexively hate, has endorsed the administration’s proposal, probably because of the threat the virus poses to his own constituents. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican whose state is also at risk, has also expressed support for meaningful action.
House Republicans and activist groups such as Heritage Action, meanwhile, continue to push in the opposite direction.
“Every day that goes by where Congress makes excuses, that’s a day lost to preparing for the Zika fight,” Earnest told reporters yesterday.