GOP skeptical of new funding for Zika

GOP skeptical of new funding for Zika
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans on Tuesday expressed skepticism about providing new emergency funding to fight the Zika virus after receiving a briefing from administration officials.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia BurwellSylvia Mary Mathews BurwellPrice was a disaster for HHS — Time for an administrator, not an ideologue Overnight Healthcare: GOP chairman to introduce pre-existing condition bill ObamaCare enrollment hits 11.5M for 2017 MORE and other top health officials came to Capitol Hill to brief top senators in both parties on Zika and make the case for $1.8 billion in emergency funding. 

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But Republican leaders leaving the briefing pointed to existing funds, including leftover money appropriated to fight Ebola, as being available for the Zika response. They did not rule out an emergency funding bill, however.

Asked if he was skeptical of the new funding request, Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits MORE (Texas), the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said, “usually they come up with the request for money before they come up with a plan.”

Cornyn said he wanted to hear more details from the administration about the Zika plan, including at an Appropriations Committee hearing on Thursday. The health committee will also hold a hearing later this month.  

“We all appreciate the potential seriousness of the issue, but right now there's a lot that's unknown,” Cornyn said. 

Asked if new funds would have to be offset, Cornyn indicated there might not be any new funds at all. “That's the cart ahead of the horse,” Cornyn said. “We're still talking about whether there's already money that's been appropriated.”

Rep. Chris StewartChristopher (Chris) Douglas StewartInterior Department should not remove the ovaries of wild horses GOP advances bill demanding documents from FBI GOP lawmaker: Trump could reverse policy of separating families if he wanted to MORE (R-Utah), for example, has introduced a bill that would shift $1.4 billion in unspent Ebola money to the fight against Zika. 

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Election security bill picks up new support in Senate Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war MORE (R-Mo.), chairman of the Appropriations health subcommittee, raised the possibility of giving a smaller amount of new money, while also pointing to the existing funds. 

“We're open to funding, and what we'll talk about is how much you need and how you're going to spend it,” Blunt said. “I do think in the short term that the money available in other accounts will meet immediate [needs], and then we need to deal with this emergency request.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi: 'Thug' Putin not welcome in Congress GOP to White House: End summit mystery Sunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight MORE (R-Ky.) said in a statement after the briefing that “at a time of limited federal resources, [senators] need a better understanding of the Administration’s funding priorities for the virus.”

The Obama administration, though, is pushing back on the idea of using existing Ebola money, arguing it needs new funds. 

“We believe we need to finish the job in terms of Ebola,” Burwell said after the briefing, and “focus on this issue separately.”

“We believe the money is important and it's urgent,” she said. 

She said money is still needed to keep up efforts on Ebola, noting a recent case in Sierra Leone that was only found “because the steps were in place.”

“Right now we need an all out effort in terms of our own domestic preparedness, especially in Puerto Rico,” she said.

Administration health officials still say that they are not expecting a widespread outbreak of Zika in the United States, and that experience with similar mosquito-borne viruses indicate it is likely to remain in small clusters, particularly in southern Florida and Texas. But officials want to be prepared. 

The funding request includes money for a range of purposes including creating “rapid response teams” to limit the spread of the virus and speeding up research and development of a vaccine.