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House takes first step to merge Zika bills

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House and Senate GOP leaders took the first step Thursday toward closing the gap between their vastly different approaches to funding the nation’s response to the Zika virus.

{mosads}The House voted to set up a conference committee to merge its $622 million funding package with the Senate’s $1.1 billion version. It also includes both chambers’ appropriations bills for military construction and veterans affairs.

Members of the conference committee face an increasingly difficult task when it comes to Zika: The bills passed by the House and Senate last week are different in terms of size, timing and how they offset their costs. One is broadly bipartisan; the other faces a veto threat from the White House.

Both packages fall short of the Obama administration’s funding request of $1.9 billion to prevent and fight the disease in the U.S.

Pressure is also building weekly, with federal and state health officials warning about the imminent spread of mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus. New research released Thursday showed that babies born to Zika-infected women could have as high as a 13 percent chance of having birth defects. 

Republicans will likely end up approving more money than the $622 million, six-month spending package approved by the House. The question is how much more and whether it will all be paid for.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who oversees health spending for the House Appropriations Committee, said from the floor Thursday that the only disagreement within the GOP is how to pay for the legislation.

He said the Senate wants to put the funding “on a giant credit card,” but the House “is not prepared to do that.”   

The conference committee will be tasked with merging a massive Senate legislative package — which includes two appropriations bills, one of which addresses Zika funding in an amendment — the House’s stand-alone bill for Zika funding and another bill loosening pesticide regulations to make it easier to spray for Zika.

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