- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2016

Senators said Thursday they’re close to striking a deal to spend hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the Zika virus, as health officials’ warnings and political pressure from Democrats have forced the GOP to the negotiating table.

Bipartisan negotiators are working “diligently” to figure out how much the government needs to work on a vaccine and try to eradicate the mosquito that carries the virus, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran.

He was mum about the amount of spending, but Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said the starting point appeared to be just over $1 billion, or more than half the $1.9 billion President Obama has said is needed.

Senators are not eyeing offsets, meaning the money would be added onto the already-growing deficit.

That’s likely to be a sticking point with Republicans, who are already fighting for spending cuts elsewhere and who will look askance at any requests for new money.

“We must resist the temptation just to treat every unusual expenditure as an emergency that can be not paid for,” Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said Thursday.

But Democrats are firm in saying they don’t want to cut anything else to pay for the Zika money.

“I certainly wouldn’t support an offset,” Mr. Murphy said. “I think this is a classic emergency appropriation, and if we start fighting over offsets, it’s just going to delay the resolution.”

The White House has already shifted $510 million from the fight against Ebola in West Africa and $89 million from other accounts toward Zika, but Mr. Obama says much more is needed.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, however, say he has refused to give them details on his plans, and they are reluctant to cut him a blank check — which they say has delayed the push to get more money out the door.

“I believe we’re closing in on a number that’s the right number,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who oversees the health subcommittee in charge of the request. “There’s never been a debate about whether to do this or not, but to be sure, we did it in the right way.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 358 cases of travel-related Zika cases in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

It is spreading locally in Latin America and Puerto Rico but could swirl in the states once temperatures climb, allowing disease-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to multiply faster.

“It’s not like the mosquitoes are coming, the mosquitoes are already here,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat. “The mosquitoes are not going to wait for our motion to proceed, or to do our arrangements and so on.”

The administration says the funds would be used to develop a better diagnostic test and a vaccine for Zika, which can cause babies to be born with abnormally small heads.

It also wants to bolster mosquito-control efforts before the disease starts to spread on the U.S. mainland, while assisting other countries that are already dealing with the outbreak.

Even if senators reach agreement, it is unclear if the package could pass the House, where the partisan divide is deep.

GOP leaders there have resisted efforts to spend billions more on Zika, even as Democrats add more to their own wish list.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that Democrats will try to add hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Flint, Michigan, to any Zika bill.

She also said they’ll need to add money to the federal fight against the prescription opioids and heroin epidemic.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican, said he couldn’t comment on the Senate’s Zika package until it is finalized.

“I reserve judgment until we see what it is they’re up to,” he said.

Conservatives say they recognize the threat that Zika poses, however.

“I do think we’re going to need to do something about Zika — no question that it’s going to inflict a lot of serious problems, particularly in the South,” said Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, whose state could be among the hardest hit.

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