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Zika Virus Funding Met With Caution in Congress

Burwell will brief lawmakers on Zika Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Capitol Hill leaders responded cautiously to President Barack Obama's announcement Monday that he would ask Congress to provide $1.8 million in emergency funding to bolster the response to the Zika virus.  

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell is set to brief Senate leaders and relevant committee leaders  Tuesday on the virus, which is typically spread through mosquitoes and has been linked to a birth defect. The World Health Organization last week declared the virus a global health emergency. Obama will send his budget for 2017 to Congress on Tuesday, and leaders have pledged to give it serious consideration.  

"The two areas where we'll want to get a better understanding at the briefing: Number one, what are the preparations being made to protect Americans? Number two, what are the administration's funding priorities given limited federal resources?" Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday.  

McConnell, R-Ky., who requested the congressional briefing, discussed the outbreak at a meeting with Obama and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., last week. McConnell said after that meeting that some charged the government was slow to respond to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and he did not want that to happen again.  

As part of its year-end spending package in December 2014, Congress provided $5.4 billion in emergency funding to combat Ebola, which claimed more than 11 million lives, mainly in West Africa.  

"The good news is, this is not like Ebola. People don't die of Zika," Obama said. "A lot of people who get it, don't even know that they have it. What we now know though is there appears to be some significant risk for pregnant women or women who are thinking about getting pregnant."  

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted Senate Democrats wrote to Obama last week, urging him to take action, and on Monday Reid called on the Senate to approve the funds.  

"We must not lower our guard. Instead we must take action," Reid said. "It's critical we approve the funds now."  

The top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee also said she would evaluate the president's request.  

“I am deeply concerned about the outbreak of the Zika virus — this is a serious situation that requires an all-hands on deck response from the federal government working in partnership with the World Health Organization and affected nations," Senate Appropriations ranking member Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said in a statement. She said the response must be "driven by science and not panic," focus on the outbreak's epicenter, and prioritize vaccine and treatment developments.  

"I will be evaluating the President’s supplemental funding request to ensure that it both meets the criteria for emergency spending and provides the resources necessary to stop the spread of this virus,” Mikulski added.  

A Senate Appropriations Committee aide said staff members are working to better understand the virus. They plan to review the president's request as well as previously appropriated funds that could be used to research and treat the Zika virus.  

On the other side of the Capitol, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was quick to endorse the president's proposal.  

“The spread of the Zika virus requires a robust, proactive U.S. response to protect American communities and combat this disease across our hemisphere," said  Pelosi, D-Calif. "Congress should swiftly approve the emergency resources to accelerate and strengthen our response to Zika’s distressing spread."  

House Appropriations spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said, "The committee will carefully review the request when it is received."  

New York Rep. Nita Lowey, Ranking Democrat on the committee, said she supports "a full and aggressive federal response."  

“I will examine the request closely and work with Republicans and Democrats to ensure our public health agencies and multilateral organizations have the resources they need to halt Zika’s spread and treat those affected," she said.  

Zika virus symptoms include a fever, rash and joint pain, but it can cause a condition known as microephaly that results in abnormally small heads for children when pregnant women are infected.  

Obama's funding request is centered on boosting response efforts, testing and a vaccine. The request includes nearly $830 million to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support response in states; enhance mosquito control programs; establish rapid response teams; enhance laboratory testing; boost education efforts; increase research on the connection between Zika infections and birth defects; and expand ability to monitor and provide training internationally.  

The request also includes $250 million for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to provide aid to Puerto Rico for pregnant women who are at risk or have been diagnosed with Zika virus, and for children with microephaly. It also includes $200 million for research and developments of Zika tests; $210 million to establish a new Urgent and Emerging Threat Fund to address Zika and other outbreaks; and nearly $380 million to assist USAID and the State Department with international efforts to contain the outbreak.  

On Wednesday, two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees will have a joint hearing on the outbreak. The Senate Help, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing on Feb. 24 to learn more about the virus and what can be done to prevent its spread. HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he plans to ask about the president's funding request at the hearing. Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have also requested briefings said they also intend to hold a hearing on the virus as well.  

Anand Parekh of the Bipartisan Policy Center expects members of both parties will support the administration’s request.  

“When it comes to these types of emergency requests, you generally see favorable bipartisan reactions,” Parekh said Monday. “We saw that in 2005 with bird flu, in 2009 with H1N1, and again in 2014 with Ebola. In those instances, there was a bipartisan consensus that we need to do something.  

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also tend to go along with emergency crisis efforts because they “help to build up our health infrastructure, which helps against threats to come, as well.”  

Health officials expect "smooth sailing" on Capitol Hill for the emergency $1.8 billion spending request, NIH Director Anthony Fauci told reporters at the White House. One big reason: the concerned reaction thus far from the American people.  

"We hope they will act quickly," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said of lawmakers' action on the coming request.  

But, like with other recent spending bills, contentious policy issues could complicate the proposals journey to passage. One is whether funds that would be allocated under the White House’s plan could be used for abortions in cases where Zika has caused birth defects on unborn children.  

Earnest said he hopes lawmakers can resolve such issues in a way that allows them to still quickly approve the proposal.  

A vaccine that could be widely distributed in response to the Zika virus likely will take years to develop, U.S. health officials said Monday.  

The Obama administration's initial focus in fighting the virus is on protecting pregnant women and controlling mosquitoes in areas where Zika is actively transmitted, said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

The mosquito breed that most often spreads the Zika virus is an "aggressive" biter, a characteristic that will complicate the U.S. government's efforts to combat the virus, she noted.  

But U.S. officials do not expect a major, widespread outbreak of the Zika virus, said Fauci. He pointed to dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases prevalent in Central and South America as examples of diseases that have been contained and prevented from sweeping through the United States.  

The virus has been actively transmitted in a list of South and Central American countries, as well as countries in Africa and Asia, according to a CDC fact sheet.  

U.S. officials are rushing to secure the funds necessary to ramp up their anti-Zika work before the spring and summer months bring mosquitoes out in droves in the continental United States, especially in the South.  

“As spring and summer approach, bringing with them larger and more active mosquito populations, we must be fully prepared to mitigate and quickly address local transmission within the continental U.S., particularly in the southern United States,” the White House said in a statement.  

The White House on Monday bluntly acknowledged “there is much that we do not yet know about Zika and its relationship to the poor health outcomes that are being reported in Zika-affected areas.”  

Still, Parekh calls the administration’s anti-Zika plan a “serious request” that is both targeted and proactive.  

“On the domestic side, it has a laser-like focus on pregnant women,” Parekh said. And its international piece rightly targets pregnant women and the regions where the virus is being actively transmitted, he added.  

John T. Bennett contributed to this report. Contact Bowman at bridgetbowman@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @bridgetbhc Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT . Related: As Zika Virus Reaches D.C., Congress Calls for Action See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.