- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The White House accused Republicans of being indifferent to pregnant women and their unborn babies by refusing to spend the nearly $2 billion President Obama wants freed up to fight the Zika virus, escalating the fracas in Washington over spending.

Members of Congress say the administration needs far less than the $1.9 billion the president requested in emergency money, and say if it’s that important he should be willing to cut elsewhere in the budget to pay for it — both propositions Mr. Obama flatly rejects.

Instead, the White House said the desperate nature of the fight against Zika, which has been linked to birth defects in babies born to infected mothers in Latin America, demands quick and generous spending — no matter the effects on the budget.

“If Republicans think that it’s not that important for us to go to great lengths to protect pregnant women and their babies, then they’re certainly entitled to make that case,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “I think that’s going to be a tough case for them to make, but they’re certainly entitled to make it.”

The Senate has passed a bipartisan bill to spend $1.1 billion in emergency money, with no corresponding cuts elsewhere, meaning the money is tacked onto the deficit. In the House, Republicans won passage of a bill to spend only a little more than $600 million through Sept. 30, with the money coming from elsewhere in the president’s health budget.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan pushed back Tuesday, saying it’s time to “cut through the noise” and focus on steps that Congress and the administration have already taken to fund the fight.

“Put simply: There is no funding shortage. There never has been,” his office said in a blog post. “Instead, the White House continues to politicize this public health crisis. It won’t even say how much it has already spent.”

The Centers for Disease Control has recorded nearly 600 travel-related cases of Zika in the continental U.S., including a handful through sexual transmission, and scientists expect the virus to flare up on the mainland once temperatures rise and mosquito populations flourish.

Mr. Obama, at the insistence of Republicans, has already shifted money from the Ebola fight in West Africa several years ago.

The administration was reluctant to move that money, saying the Ebola virus still poses a threat due to flare-ups from isolated cases or sexual transmission.

Meanwhile, World Health Organization officials say there’s mounting evidence that sexual transmission of Zika is possible “and more common than previously assumed.”

The WHO on Tuesday doubled its recommended abstinence period for people at risk of infection, saying couples returning from areas with the Zika virus should practice safe sex or abstain for eight weeks, instead of just four, to avoid transmitting the disease.

Those planning a pregnancy should definitely wait that long before trying to conceive, the agency said, and should wait even longer — at least six months — if the male showed actual symptoms of the virus.

“We did not expect that sexual transmission would be as common as we’ve seen it,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a recent address to the National Press Club. “We’ve had 10 documented cases in the U.S. We’ve never had sexual transmission of dengue or West Nile, but Zika can spread sexually. That adds a new level of risk and a new message that if your partner is pregnant, and you’ve been in an area with Zika, use a condom.”

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

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