Congressional Republicans reject robust response to Zika threat

A member of the National Health Foundation fumigates against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, vector of the dengue, chikungunya fever and zika viruses, in Gama, Brazil, Feb. 17, 2016. (Photo by Evaristo SA/AFP/Getty)
A member of the National Health Foundation fumigates against the Aedes aegypti mosquito, vector of the dengue, chikungunya fever and zika viruses, in Gama, south of Brasilia, Brazil on Feb. 17, 2016.
The more serious the public health threat posed by the Zika virus, the less serious congressional Republicans are about addressing it.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a Republican-backed bill Wednesday night to combat the Zika virus that the White House has already threatened to veto as inadequate. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, would provide $622 million to fight the virus -- less than a third of what President Barack Obama asked for three months ago.

A Senate bill, which is already inadequate, plans to invest $1.1 billion, well short of the $1.9 billion the administration and public-health experts believe is necessary.
Because the House and Senate passed a very different bill, there will now be a conference committee to work out the differences. By some accounts, it may be "well into the summer, or even longer" before Congress approves a final bill.
I'm sure the virus will do us all a favor and wait while Republicans try to get their act together.
The alternative approach, of course, was simply approving the package sent to Capitol Hill by the Obama administration -- a package endorsed by the CDC and public-health experts -- but Republicans refused. When the Senate considered the White House plan, it had bipartisan support, but not enough to pass.
At one point yesterday, as the Huffington Post reported, GOP Senate leaders said they're open to funding the Zika response, but only if Democrats accepted cuts to Obamacare.

"Would the senator modify her request to include my language... which has the exact same funding levels... but includes a pay-for using the prevention fund in the Affordable Care Act?" [Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas)] said, referring a part of Obamacare that aims to boost public health through preventive means, but that Republicans often target as a slush fund. [Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)] objected to Cornyn's counteroffer, noting that the prevention fund helps keep women and infants healthy -- one of her same goals in pushing emergency Zika funding. "The agreement that the senator from Texas has just broached means that we're going to have to fight over cuts -- cuts to women, cuts to families, cuts to critical health care efforts in order to fight the Zika virus," Murray said. "That is objectionable."

Writing in The New Republic, David Dayen had a great piece on the broader story yesterday.

Republicans like to make the budget deficit a moral question about the hazards of unsustainable debt. But the hazards of hundreds of babies born with birth defects are far more immediate. And that leads you to this bizarre logic that America must allow children to suffer with potential ailments in order to express their values of fiscal responsibility. It's also a myopic way to look at the deficit. Investing money in public health today means not having to spend more in palliative care tomorrow. Stopping the Zika threat with $2 billion means not spending $3 or $4 billion to care for the deformities that would arise in children if nothing is done.

But Republicans can't bring themselves to think this way, even if it's pennywise and pound foolish. When confronted with a public-health threat, the GOP majority on Capitol Hill instinctively asks, "How can we avoid meaningful public investment in a solution?" instead of, "How do we properly address the problem?"
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told her colleagues yesterday, "It is not possible to nickel and dime a health emergency without consequences. As Republicans embrace this irrational anti-spending ideology, this country is put in greater and greater danger."
GOP lawmakers, who've managed to convince themselves that government spending is bad even when it's good, were unmoved.