The White House has been begging Congress for money to fight the Zika virus epidemic since last February. But President Barack Obama said Thursday he’d veto a bill the House and Senate are preparing.
The House passed a measure Wednesday night as Democrats staged a sit-in over gun legislation. It would provide $1.1 billion to prepare for, study and fight the Zika virus. Obama asked for $1.9 billion, and the White House says the bill also carries some unacceptable riders aimed at damaging Planned Parenthood and other family planning groups.
The Senate is ready to take it up next week, or after the July 4 recess. It’s included as part of a military and veterans funding bill.
“It is clear that once again, Republicans have put political games ahead of the health and safety of the American people, particularly pregnant women and their babies,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.
“This plan from Congressional Republicans is four months late and nearly a billion dollars short of what our public health experts have said is necessary to do everything possible to fight the Zika virus and steals funding from other health priorities,” Earnest added.
“The fact that the Republican plan limits needed birth control services for women in the United States and Puerto Rico as we seek to stop the spread of a sexually transmitted disease is a clear indication they don't take seriously the threat from the Zika virus or their responsibility to protect Americans.”
The White House wanted all new money. The measure pays for it in several different ways, including taking $543 million in unused funds from a fund set aside to help territories set up Obamacare health insurance exchanges – something they never did.
It also takes $107 million from funds allocated to fight Ebola in West Africa.
"It is a responsible plan that assures the administration will continue to have the needed resources to protect the public," House Speaker Paul Ryan said.
"It's a mockery of how Congress should treat an emergency," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, complained Wednesday.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz says if the measure does pass the Senate, Obama will veto it.
"This is a bill that would steal money from other critically important public health priorities," Schultz told a news briefing. "We urge Republicans to stop turning this into a political football, and to actually get to work to come up with proposals that will serve the American people."
Zika’s spreading across Latin America and has infected at least 2,600 people in U.S. states and territories. While it’s not circulating on the U.S. mainland yet, federal health officials say they expect local outbreaks at any moment as infected travelers can pass the virus to local mosquitoes.
Zika doesn’t make most people very ill but it can cause severe birth defects if pregnant women become infected. Brazil and Colombia have reported an upsurge in such defects, most notably microcephaly, an incurable condition caused by brain damage so severe the baby has a small, malformed skull.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it’s monitoring 265 women whose pregnancies may have been affected by Zika, and another 216 in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories.
So far, four babies have been born with Zika-linked defects in the U.S. and five pregnancies, including one in Puerto Rico have miscarried or been aborted.
States say they need federal help in eradicating mosquitoes that can spread Zika, and the National Institutes of Health launched a study of women infected with Zika this week, while warning that it cannot be completed if funding doesn’t come soon.