Obama launches Zika funding push

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The Obama administration on Monday rushed into action to fight the Zika virus, hoping to prevent a widespread outbreak in the United States and calm public fears about the mysterious disease. 

The White House announced it is asking Congress for $1.8 billion in emergency funding to better research and track the virus at home and abroad. 

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Public health officials said Monday they do not expect an “explosive” outbreak in the U.S., noting that similar mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever have been controlled in Texas, Florida and other Southern states.

But they stressed it is crucial for the U.S. to take steps now to fight the virus before mosquito bites become more common in the warmer months. 

“We’re never presumptuous,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We never assume the least; we always assume the worst.”

Several lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidOvernight Finance: Obama signs Puerto Rico bill | Trump steps up attacks on trade | Dodd-Frank backers cheer 'too big to fail' decision | New pressure to fill Ex-Im board Iowa poll: Clinton up 14 on Trump, Grassley in tight race with Dem Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton creates firestorm for email case MORE (D-Nev.), were quick to support the White House’s emergency funding request. 

But leaders of the health and national security committees were noncommittal about the funding package, saying they will wait to hear directly from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in a Tuesday briefing.

Most of the funding — $1.48 billion — would go to HHS, and majority of that would be directed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The CDC has vowed to pour more resources into new research, better testing and stronger tracking of people carrying the virus. The agency is focused on heading off the disease in the southern United States and Puerto Rico, where people are most exposed to the mosquito that spreads the virus. 

Fauci said a vaccine may not be widely available for several years but stressed that $200 million included in the proposal could help accelerate development. 

The administration will concentrate research and education efforts on women who are pregnant or may become pregnant. 

While the disease produces mild symptoms in adults, it has been linked to thousands of birth defects in Brazil, specifically microcephaly, a condition in which babies develop abnormally small heads.

“The real risk here is to pregnant women,” CDC Director Tom Frieden told The Hill on Friday. “The key here is to focus on the single most important thing, and that’s protecting pregnant woman.”

A total of 51 cases have been reported in the U.S, including one pregnant woman. 

President Obama is hoping to avoid a repeat of 2014, when he faced a torrent of criticism for the government's sluggish response to the threat posed by a deadly outbreak of Ebola virus in Africa.

Obama personally took to the airwaves to urge the public not to panic about the possibility of a Zika outbreak.

“The good news is this is not like Ebola; people don't die of Zika. A lot of people get it and don't even know that they have it,” Obama said in an interview with CBS News that aired Monday. “There shouldn't be panic on this, this is not something where people are going to die from it. It is something we have to take seriously.”

Fauci and CDC deputy director Anne Schuchat made a surprise appearance at the White House’s daily press briefing to inform the public about the disease and urge Congress to approve the funds. 

The CDC activated the highest level of alert at its emergency control center over Zika, signaling the agency will devote more resources to the response. 

The administration’s aggressive public outreach is a demonstration that it learned lessons from the Ebola virus.

The president convened his first cabinet-level meeting on the virus two weeks ago, with more than 20 of his top health and national security advisers in the room. 

Two days later, Obama spoke with the president of Brazil and pledged U.S. support, all before the United Nations’ health agency had officially declared the Zika virus a global health emergency.

The president also discussed the Zika response last week in a closed-door meeting with Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanObama signs Puerto Rico debt bill Will Never Trump forces draft Romney to run? The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Healthcare: Dems dig in over Zika funding Business groups ramp up pressure to fill Ex-Im board Senate Dems: No August break without Zika deal MORE (R-Ky.).

On Capitol Hill, committees are scrambling to find time for briefings and hearings as the busy budget season begins. 

McConnell, along with committee leaders and staffers, will hear directly from HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell on Tuesday. 

“Concern about the Zika virus is growing in our country, and protecting constituents — especially children — from communicable disease is a high priority for all of us,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday, promising to consider the White House’s emergency funding request.

Subpanels of the Senate Health Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee are planning to hold hearings this month. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have already been briefed. 

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who will convene Congress's first Zika hearing on Wednesday, said he wants to know the most updated information about the threat from the virus before approving new funds. 

Smith said he is particularly alarmed by the number of unknown factors about the virus, noting that “even the president uses the word may.”  

“It is a little reminiscent of Ebola, just trying to scale up, figure out what we can do, where the gaps are,” Smith said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday he hoped the funding would not be bogged down in a partisan battle. 

“We are hopeful that Congress will recognize the urgency of this request and act quickly on it,” he said adding the money “falls in the category of things that shouldn’t break down along party lines.”

At least one Republican, Rep. Vern Buchanan, supports the request. Buchanan said Monday if health officials have not made progress on a vaccine by the summer, the Zika virus will pose a greater threat to his Florida district. 

But the funding is likely to encounter resistance on the issue of birth control — and possibly abortions — for pregnant women who are diagnosed with the virus. Officials in socially conservative countries including El Salvador are now considering whether to loosen abortion laws for women diagnosed with the virus.

Reid said Monday the U.S. response to the virus must include “increasing access to‎ contraceptives for women in Zika-affected regions who choose to use them.”

While he did not mention abortions, his comments are likely to incite social conservatives who have long been opposed to funding family planning programs in other countries.