Senate sets votes on competing Zika funding plans

Image:Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen at the Laboratory of Entomology and Ecology of the Dengue Branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in San Juan, March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Alvin Baez


By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Three competing plans for battling a potential Zika virus outbreak in the United States were presented on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Thursday, as lawmakers tried to break an impasse pitting President Barack Obama against congressional Republicans.

The first test votes on the measures, which would provide at least $1.1 billion in new funds to deal with the spreading virus, were expected on Tuesday.

In February, Obama urged Congress to quickly approve $1.9 billion in emergency funds to deal with prevention and treatment of Zika virus, which the International Organization warns is spreading rapidly in the Americas.

The disease, transmitted by mosquitoes, has been linked to the birth defect microcephaly and other severe brain abnormalities. It also is suspected of causing a rare neurological disorder, Guillain-Barre syndrome, that can result in paralysis.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest welcomed “any sort of forward momentum in Congress” while continuing to push for the full $1.9 billion.

“It could not be clearer that Congress needs to take action to help our states and our local officials fight the Zika virus. That is critical for health and safety of the American people,” Earnest said.

Florida’s senators, Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, called for the full $1.9 billion, saying $1.1 billion was inadequate.

They noted that the Florida Department of News has reported a total of 112 Zika virus cases, the most of any U.S. state, as the mosquito season goes into high gear with hotter temperatures.

One proposal now before the Senate would provide Obama with his full $1.9 billion request for emergency funds. A second one would scale back Obama’s request to $1.1 billion.

These two options would not require spending cuts elsewhere to cover the Zika costs, Senate aides said.

A third one would take money from Obamacare to pay for $1.1 billion in Zika response funds.

Even if the Senate approves one of these proposals, its fate is uncertain in the House of Representatives, where Republicans are deeply divided over new Zika funding, according to aides.

Two senior Republican aides said the party’s House leadership has been unable to formulate a plan on Zika legislation and is preoccupied with internal party strife over Donald Trump becoming the presumptive presidential nominee, as well as a deadlock over Puerto Rico debt legislation and a budget blueprint that has been stuck in the House.

While plans to unveil a new Puerto Rico bill on Wednesday were canceled, a third senior House Republican aide noted there is progress on that legislation and that “discussions” on a budget “are moving forward as well.”

Senate backers of each amendment will try to attach their competing proposals to an unrelated spending bill the Senate started debating on Thursday.


(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Bernard Orr)

Copyright 2016 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.


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