Policy

Zika Spurs War of Words

White House wants funding, House appropriators want more details

Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., accuses the White House of stonewalling on Zika details. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The White House and the top House member on spending matters traded barbs Wednesday about funding to combat the Zika virus, with the White House saying lawmakers have “frittered away” a chance to protect Americans — especially pregnant women and unborn children.

Press Secretary Josh Earnest compared a Zika bill the House sent to President Barack Obama’s desk on Tuesday to "passing out umbrellas in the event of a hurricane."

The bill is aimed at creating incentives for drug makers to speed work on Zika treatments, but dose not provide $1.9 billion the White House has requested.

Earnest called the bill ( S 2512 ) "insufficient" because it would not allocate a single dollar for things the Obama administration says are needed to combat the virus before mosquitoes are out in force across the U.S. That list includes targeting specific Zika-carrying mosquito populations, diagnostic testing and other efforts, according to the White House.

“In this case, Congress is two months late and $1.9 billion short in providing the assistance that our public health professionals say that they need to make sure that they respond appropriately to this situation,” Earnest said, referring to an emergency spending proposal the White House sent lawmakers in late February.

“All of these are steps that are critical to ensuring that we're protecting the pregnant women and their newborn children from a virus that we know has a potentially devastating impact,” Earnest added. “So  . . .  I'm not prepared to give Congress credit for that legislation. It is a positive step, but it is a far cry from what our public health experts tell us is necessary to prepare for the situation.”

The virus has been transmitted in South and Central America, as well as Africa and the Pacific islands, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to being linked to microcephaly, a birth defect where an infant's head is smaller than expected, and a serious autoimmune nervous disorder, officials said there were growing links between the virus and neurological conditions.  

So far, authorities have reported nearly 700 cases in the United States and its territories. About half the total cases -- those in Puerto Rico -- primarily originated locally, while the remainder in the U.S. were transmitted by travelers.  

U.S. health officials warned that mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus were present in 30 states.  

Those officials do not expect a wide-scale outbreak in the continental U.S., but they warned that Zika could still be a big problem and that they lacked funds to head that off.

That White House assessment on congressional action came a few hours after House Appropriations Chairman  Harold Rogers , R-Ky., accused the administration of stonewalling lawmakers on their efforts to better understand how it would use a proposed $1.9 billion in emergency monies to combat the virus.

Rogers said he is seeking additional information on exactly what the administration wants to do with the money, saying the White House’s initial request had scant details.

Rogers slapped one of Washington’s least-desired terms, “slush fund,” on that proposal, saying the manner in which the White House structured the request meant “the money could be used for any purpose.”

But Earnest described the request as detailed, even holding up a printed version at one point during his briefing, and telling reporters he is unsure why any GOP lawmaker would be unsure about how the funds would be spent.

Rogers told reporters that the House spending panel’s efforts to craft a Zika supplemental funding measure are being stymied because the administration has yet to “give us a number.” However, the chairman disclosed that members of the committee staff have begun work on Zika legislation, though he didn't detail what the emergency bill might include. 

The administration last week shifted $589 million in existing funds from the fight against Ebola and other programs to counter the virus. Once Rogers' panel has an idea of how much funding is needed, he said the Appropriations Committee will "be happy to file that supplemental bill."

Some House Appropriations Democrats rallied to the White House’s side.

"I quite frankly don't know what information you all are looking for from the administration,” Rep.  Rosa DeLauro  of Connecticut told Rogers. “It is pretty detailed as to what this would encompass."

Despite the White House's gripes with the Zika bill that passed the House Tuesday, Earnest said he "expects" Obama to sign it into law.

But White House officials continue pressing for substantially more from Congress.

“I'm not criticizing the legislation that they have passed,” Earnest said. “But there are far more significant steps that they could take, even as it relates to expediting the production of a vaccine.

“One of the things that we know that the private sector does is they make decisions based on a commitment from the federal government to be a customer,” he said. “Everyday that goes by is one that is wasted.”

Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @bennettjohnt

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.