A health worker sprays insecticide to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmits the Zika virus under the bleachers of the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Jan. 26, 2016.
Photo by Leo Correa/AP

White House: Congress is ‘passing out umbrellas in a hurricane’

Angry disputes between President Obama’s White House and the Republican Congress are fairly routine, but the dispute over the federal response to the Zika virus is a little different than most.
When the process began two months ago, it didn’t seem especially contentious. The Obama administration requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to respond to the looming public-health threat. The White House noted at the time, “This sort of falls in the category of things that shouldn’t break down along party lines.”
But that’s exactly what happened anyway. Congressional Republicans responded to the request by telling 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) still being used to address Ebola in West Africa.
And so, the White House kept pushing, saying Congress needs to step up to help address the Zika threat. Then the Office of Management and Budget soon after said in effect, “No, really, Congress needs to step up to help address the Zika threat.” Then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention effectively said, “No, really, Congress needs to step up to help address the Zika threat.” Then the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases effectively said, “No, really, Congress needs to step up to help address the Zika threat.”
Roll Call reported that Congress did pass a bill, intended to create incentives for drug makers to speed work on Zika treatments, but it allocates none of $1.9 billion the administration says is necessary. It’s reached the point at which the White House has stopped being polite and started getting real.
Press Secretary Josh Earnest compared a Zika bill the House sent to President Barack Obama’s desk on Tuesday to “passing out umbrellas in the event of a hurricane.” […]
Earnest called the bill (S 2512) “insufficient” because it would not allocate a single dollar for things the Obama administration says are needed to combat the virus before mosquitoes are out in force across the U.S. That list includes targeting specific Zika-carrying mosquito populations, diagnostic testing and other efforts, according to the White House.
Earnest told reporters, “In this case, Congress is two months late and $1.9 billion short in providing the assistance that our public health professionals say that they need to make sure that they respond appropriately to this situation.”
In response, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) complained that the White House hasn’t given Congress enough information on what, specifically, the $1.9 billion would be used for, fearing that the administration’s plan amounted to the creation of a “slush fund” with money that “could be used for any purpose.”
Appropriations Committee Democrats said they have no idea what Rogers is talking about.
“I quite frankly don’t know what information you all are looking for from the administration,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) told the Kentucky Republican. “It is pretty detailed as to what this would encompass.”
And so, very little is happening, even as Dr. Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director of the CDC, explains, “Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought.”
The response from public-health officials has been one of concern and alarm. Much of Capitol Hill, meanwhile, prefers to remain passive.
Ironically, in February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared, “We need to get out in front of the Zika virus.” In hindsight, “we” apparently did not refer to Republicans in Congress.