- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Florida Republicans urged House colleagues Tuesday to wave the white flag and borrow more than $1 billion to combat the Zika virus, saying efforts to stave off birth defects tied to the disease outweigh election-year concerns about the deficit.

Mosquitoes have infected more than 60 people in Miami and other pockets of the state, prompting companies and tourists to move their dollars out of the state and increasing the risk of microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. Officials say medical bills for each of those newborns can reach up to $10 million over a lifetime.

“If we don’t move to spend a little bit now, we’re going to spend a lot more later,” said Rep. Curt Clawson, Florida Republican and member of the fiscally conservative House Freedom Caucus.

His plea sets up a clash with House conservatives from elsewhere who insist on spending offsets to pay for new Zika money and say Congress already is spending too much on President Obama’s domestic priorities.

Mr. Clawson said Congress spends billions oversees, so it should be able to accept a $1.1 billion package that already has won Senate approval and would “save babies” at home.

“I’m a conservative Republican — I support my party. We can’t spend a billion or two for babies, and for pregnant women?” he said. “I mean, where’s our priorities?”

Congress is scrambling to break a months-long impasse over federal funds to develop a Zika vaccine, understand the disease’s impact and bolster local efforts to zap mosquitoes that have infected 64 people in Florida and more than 15,000 in Puerto Rico.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday said he plans to deal with Zika this week as part of short-term deal to fund the government past Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Yet he wouldn’t say whether new money will be offset with budget cuts elsewhere, or if funding will flow to Planned Parenthood — a key sticking point for House conservatives who say there shouldn’t be an “earmark” for the nation’s largest abortion provider.

“We’ll let you know how we work out these various sub-parts when we do,” said Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Senate Democrats filibustered a $1.1 billion compromise plan that left Planned Parenthood out of its birth-control plans and took $750 million from Ebola, Obamacare and other accounts to partially offset the effort.

As cases mount back home, seven House members from Florida — four Democrats and three Republicans — pleaded with the Senate on Tuesday to resend a bipartisan plan that posts $1.1 billion in Zika money by adding it all to the deficit.

“Please jam us with a clean Zika bill and leave town, so we have to accept it,” said Rep. David Jolly, Florida Republican.

By “clean,” the lawmakers meant a bill that doesn’t include policy provisions related to Planned Parenthood or other provisions that could scuttle the deal.

Yet dozens of House conservatives say the House already approved a fiscally responsible plan, and that Senate Democrats are using Planned Parenthood as a political wedge in the run-up to the election.

“They’re not even willing to take up the bill because they want to make this a political fight,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, Idaho Republican. “So they’re making a political fight about the lives of women and children in Puerto Rico and all throughout the United States.”

Mr. Jolly said the House is running out of time and options, so he expects the Senate to send over a continuing resolution, or “CR,” that borrows money for Zika and can attract enough Republicans to pass alongside Democratic support.

The only question, he said, is whether GOP leaders allow the measure to come to the floor for a vote, “based on the internal pressures of our caucus.”

“I think they do,” he said. “They’re going to recognize they have to, that’s the only option.”

Leadership aides declined to project how the fight will play out.

“House Republicans are working with our Senate counterparts on a solution,” said AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, Florida Democrat whose district saw the first cases of locally acquired Zika in the continental U.S., said negotiators should open the government’s checkbook because scientists still don’t know enough about Zika, such as how long it persists in bodily fluids or affects infant and adult brains over time.

“These are questions that must be answered,” she said. “Can you really put a price tag on that?”

David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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

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