White House Criticizes Congress for Inaction on Zika Money

  • The Obama administration will shift $510 million from Ebola
  • Sixty-four pregnant women in U.S. are infected with the virus

Adult mosquitoes are seen in an egg production cage in the laboratory at the Oxitec Ltd. facility in Campinas, Brazil, on March 1, 2016.

Photographer: Paulo Fridman/Bloomberg

The White House announced Wednesday it will shift $589 million in government spending to combat the Zika virus, and warned Congress that it would regret ignoring the Obama administration’s request for $1.9 billion to increase research and defenses against the disease.

“Congress has completely abdicated their responsibility to follow through on a proposal the administration put forward based on the advice of scientific experts,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters at a briefing Wednesday.

Administration officials said they would shift $510 million in unused funds from the campaign against the Ebola virus and $79 million from other accounts to Zika, which has been confirmed to have infected 64 women in the U.S. who are pregnant. The virus is believed to cause microcephaly, a birth defect. But the White House warned it doesn’t have enough money to fully combat the mosquito-borne virus.

Government officials said on a conference call with reporters that they expect “local transmission” of the virus in the southern U.S. by this summer. The birth of a Hawaii child with microcephaly, characterized by an abnormally small head, has been confirmed to be connected to Zika infection in its mother, the officials said.

Mosquito-Control Programs

The reprogrammed money isn’t enough to fund scientific work on vaccines for the virus or expand mosquito-control programs, the White House said. More money would also help local health agencies prepare for the virus, the administration said.

“There’s no reason that Democrats and Republicans should disagree about the need to protect the American public,” Earnest said.

Senator Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who chairs the subcommittee that controls funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Tuesday he was still studying if more funds were needed.

Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who oversees State Department funding, said the administration told him the re-programmed $589 million “ought to cover it.”

In the House, Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky and two other top Republican appropriators said they “will look carefully at the details of today’s proposal by the administration to ensure the best and most effective use of these funds” and “to monitor the changing needs resulting from this unpredictable crisis.”

The Obama administration’s move comes as Liberia’s health ministry announced a second case of Ebola, heightening fears that the deadly virus could re-emerge in West Africa. Administration officials say the Ebola money they will shift to Zika would have paid for health infrastructure improvements in Africa to help prevent Ebola outbreaks.

“Rather than fully funding the president’s request for money to fight the Zika virus, Republicans forced the administration to rob Peter to pay Paul, leaving the health and safety of Americans at risk,” Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that controls funding for the health department, said in a statement. The U.S. “cannot abandon our fight in West Africa where Ebola continues to flare up,” she said.

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