- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Senate is poised to approve $1.1 billion to combat the Zika virus — but rejected a move Tuesday to pay for the new spending, after Democrats said there is neither the time nor enough waste to cut elsewhere in the country’s $4 trillion budget.

Senators voted 68-29 to head off a potential filibuster of the Zika money, clearing the way to attach the spending as part of a bill that will fund transportation and housing agencies next year.

President Obama wants far more money — some $1.9 billion — but the Senate rejected that figure.

Democratic senators also rejected a GOP-led effort to siphon money from Obamacare to pay for the effort, with the White House saying the mosquito-borne virus is such a danger that the money should be spent immediately, and the price tag tacked onto the debt.

“Traditionally, when Congress has been faced with a public health emergency, they haven’t wasted a lot of time looking for funding offsets. And that’s a pretty dangerous exercise because it delays the needed funding but it also risks gutting other critical priorities,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.

Fiscal conservatives say that approach is irresponsible, but the administration and its Democratic allies said they didn’t want to search the federal budget for offsets.

Mr. Obama submitted his Zika request to Congress about three months ago. He still insists that scientists need almost $2 billion to develop and better diagnostic test and vaccine for Zika, which causes birth defects, while bolstering efforts to kill the mosquitoes that ferry the virus.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who negotiated the $1.1 billion compromise, said he axed parts of the president’s request that were unnecessary or couldn’t be enacted on an emergency basis.

The Senate still has to adopt the package as part of the funding bill. Once it has, GOP leaders plan to meld their proposal with a House proposal that uses $352 million in leftover funds from the Ebola fight in West Africa and $270 million from other health accounts to fight Zika.

Mr. Obama threatened Tuesday to veto the House bill, saying it and would undermine efforts to stamp out the Ebola and avoid a repeat of the outbreak that killed thousands in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The administration wants to backfill the $510 million it already took from the Ebola fight, rather than tap that account again.

As it stands, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recorded 500 travel-related cases of Zika in the states and the District, a handful of them through sexual transmission, and scientists say the virus could puncture the mainland further once temperatures climb and disease-carrying mosquitoes flourish.

Florida has reported about a fifth of the cases so far, prompting Sen. Marco Rubio to break with his GOP colleagues and support the $1.9 billion funding level, though he tried to distance himself from the administration’s plan.

“Fine, it came from the White House,” Mr. Rubio, a former presidential candidate, said Tuesday. “But it’s really the scientists’ request, the doctors’ request, the public health sector’s request for how to address this issue.”

Three Republicans facing re-election this year — Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rob Portman of Ohio — joined Mr. Rubio in supporting the $1.9 billion measure, as did Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican whose state is vulnerable to Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry Zika.

Every Republican who voted Tuesday backed an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, to cover Zika costs with prevention and public health funds from the Health and Human Services Department.

It failed to get the 60 votes needed to advance, 52-45, after one Senate Democrat blasted the option as “even dumber” than the $1.1 billion option that fell $800 million short of Mr. Obama’s request.

“You heard that right,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat. “Some Senate Republicans think the best way to fund America’s emergency response to the Zika virus is to rob from America’s front line responders who help identify and track infectious disease like the Zika virus.”

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