- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Congressional GOP leaders said they are still searching for the “right number” in a standoff over funding to combat Zika, brushing aside withering criticism Tuesday from the White House and Senate Democrats who accused Republicans of dithering in the face of a major health crisis.

Top Republicans said the White House appears to have enough money right now to protect Americans from Zika, and say if President Obama wants to earn the $1.9 billion he requested, he’ll have to turn over more details of how he’ll use it.

“We’re working to find the right number at the right time,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican who is leading bipartisan negotiations. Their tentative plan calls for $1.1 billion in emergency funding, but he said they’re unlikely to finalize the bill before the Senate takes a break next week.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told the GOP to work faster, warning Zika is “already upon us” in Puerto Rico and will puncture the mainland as temperatures climb.

He said the Senate shouldn’t take its vacation next week if it hasn’t passed a bill.

Meanwhile the White House said Republicans’ demands for more information are an excuse to delay.

SEE ALSO: Zika funding to be put on deficit by Democrats as GOP says no to new spending

“They’ve had opportunities to ask their questions. There’s ample information that’s been provided by the administration,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “And I don’t think their constituents are going to find it an acceptable response, when there is a widespread media freakout about the Zika virus, that Republicans haven’t acted because they didn’t get their questions answered.”

Tuesday’s war of words escalated a series of spending fights that are unfolding in a topsy-turvy election year.

From the opioids epidemic to the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Democrats have urged Republican leaders to “do their job” and post billions in emergency spending to stamp out the crises, before they incur even greater costs down the road.

While Senate Democrats cheered a water resources bill that includes tens of millions for Flint and other communities affected by lead-tainted drinking water, Democrats on the other side of the Capitol said House bills to combat opioids addiction required more funding to actually work.

Republicans are leery of new spending, however, saying they do not want to burden taxpayers if there is untapped money sitting in government accounts.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told Democrats not to use the debate over Zika money to sour the chances for Congress to pass the dozen annual appropriations bills required to keep the government open.

SEE ALSO: HHS chief to address Zika in Puerto Rico

“Don’t trying try to use the Zika crisis to hold hostage our ability to do our regular appropriation work,” the Texas Republican said. “It’s too important.”

The Centers for Disease Control has recorded nearly 400 travel-related cases of Zika in the states and D.C., including some instances of sexual transmission, but say the virus will swirl on its own with the proliferation of the Aedes aegypti mosquito this summer.

Indeed, Senate Republicans have acknowledged that Zika poses a real threat. But they also know that any deal would have to win approval from the fractious House GOP caucus, where conservatives are already upset about spending hikes the parties agreed to last fall.

An influential conservative group, Heritage Action, urged GOP leaders last week to offset any new money to combat the virus with budget cuts elsewhere.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said the White House already shifted nearly $600 million, including $510 million from the Ebola fight in West Africa, to the Zika fight.

“There is enough money there, especially to deal with this year,” the California Republican said Tuesday. “So we’ll go through the appropriations process for next year. It’s the best place to handle it. It’s the best place to get the answers, and this will be a bipartisan solution.”

Undeterred, House Democrats filed a bill Monday to fully fund Mr. Obama’s nearly $2 billion request for emergency spending, which Congress would tack onto the deficit rather than searching for offsets to pay for them.

The White House says that money is needed to pursue better diagnostic tests and a vaccine, while boosting mosquito-control efforts.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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