- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Congressional negotiators are crafting a deal that offers roughly a third to half of President Obama’s $1.9 billion request to fight the mosquito-borne Zika virus, but the parties haven’t agreed on whether to borrow the money or pay for it now with cuts elsewhere in the massive federal budget.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican, kicked off bicameral talks Wednesday with a plea for speedy action, saying dollars “must get out the door now” to stem the disease, which causes serious birth defects.

The White House and its Democratic allies want to tack any Zika spending onto the deficit, however, it is a nonstarter for House Republicans.

“It needs to be fully offset,” Mr. Rogers said.

So far Mr. Obama has shifted nearly $600 million, most of it from the Ebola fight in West Africa, to combat Zika in the near term, though he wants Congress to backfill that money and combat the latest global health scare at home and abroad.

The Senate approved $1.1 billion in emergency spending last month to combat Zika, though the House later moved to take $622 million more from the Ebola account and other health accounts to address the emerging threat.

Conferees sat down for opening statements on the competing plans Wednesday, four months after Mr. Obama submitted his request and just weeks before Congress breaks for party conventions in July.

Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington Democrat who helped to negotiate the Senate package, said the final product cannot dip below $1.1 billion, though she is worried that time is running out for an agreement on how to pay for it.

“If they come back here with a package that takes money away from some other critical health care issues to pay for this, they’ll have a riot in the streets. I don’t know why they’d even propose it,” she said. “But we’ll see.”

House GOP aides said the negotiations have just begun, and that $622 million remains their opening position in the talks.

The Zika outbreak in Brazil has been linked to an uptick in the rate of babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly, though scientists say the disease can probably cause an array of devastating birth defects.

Zika is blanketing on Puerto Rico, and the Centers for Disease Control has recorded nearly 700 travel-related cases in the 50 states and the District, though it expects the virus to spread on its own this summer.

Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Vern Buchanan are among the Florida Republicans who’ve urged Congress to approve Mr. Obama’s full request, though party leaders say the administration has enough money to deal with upfront costs.

Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican, said the CDC should spend money it has more wisely.

“It needs to be directed properly to do the most good,” he told CDC Director Tom Frieden Wednesday at a meeting among the Florida delegation.

Dr. Frieden, visibly frustrated, said with limited dollars, he cannot bolster research and also monitor pregnant women who become infected.

While Mr. Mica left the room, Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz asked: “Do you have a money tree growing in the courtyard of the CDC?”

Dr. Frieden said he did not.

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