WASHINGTON — Republican leaders in Congress may be taking a slow, deliberate approach to dealing with the looming threat of the Zika virus, but Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned his colleagues Thursday that it’s about time for them to freak out about the mosquito-borne disease.
The administration of President Barack Obama asked for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to combat the virus in February, but Republicans in Congress have balked, saying they have questions that have not been answered about how the White House will use the money.
In the meantime, health officials have warned that Zika, which is linked to birth defects, is even more dangerous than previously thought, and that dozens of states are at risk from the mosquitoes that transmit the virus.
Rubio took to the Senate floor Thursday and tried to convey the threat to his fellow Republicans, saying he is especially concerned after getting briefed by officials in his state.
"They are freaked out about the Zika thing. I don't know any other term to use. If they are freaked out, then I'm very concerned about it as well," Rubio said. "And that's why I do support fully and immediately funding the situation."
Rubio spoke after a string of Democrats who had insisted that Congress act before it goes on a 10-day break Friday.
The Floridian wasn't willing to go that far, but he suggested that during the recess lawmakers should be drawing up the legislation needed to act as soon as they return.
"I hope that there is real urgency about dealing with this," Rubio said. "I understand this is not a political issue. There is no such thing as a Republican position on Zika or Democrat position on Zika because these mosquitoes bite everyone. And they're not going to ask you what your party registration is or who you plan to vote for in November."
He also warned that cases of infection are inevitable in the continental United States, and that Congress should act sooner rather than later, for both practical and political reasons.
"This is a real threat, and it is not just the tropical states," Rubio said. "We are going to face the Zika problem in this country this summer and fall."
"My advice to my colleagues is we're going to deal with this, and I hope we deal with it at the front end, because not only is it better for our people, it's better for you," he added. "You're going to have to explain to people why it is that we sat around for weeks and did nothing on something of this magnitude."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not seem overly inclined to jump at Rubio's request.
Earlier, he pointed out that the White House has funding already because it transferred almost $600 million from the effort to prevent Ebola outbreaks.
"Preventing the spread of Zika is something that both parties agree is a priority," McConnell said, adding that both sides have been working diligently on the funding.
"That's especially notable when you consider how difficult it is for the [Appropriations] Committee to move forward when the administration keeps it waiting for month after month after month for information it needs, as has been the case here with Zika. Progress is being made, anyway."
Still, Rubio argued that this was no time to wait on the normal appropriations process.
"It's just a matter of days, weeks, or hours before you will open up a newspaper, turn on the news and it will say someone in the continental United States was bit by a mosquito and they contracted Zika," Rubio said. "And when that happens, then everyone is going to be freaked out, not just me."
"I want to know what people are going to say when this happens and [people] ask what did you do about it?" Rubio added.