WASHINGTON ― Saying the Zika threat is “getting critical,” President Barack Obama called on Congress Thursday to go back to work and pass the funding he has sought since February to combat the disease now spreading in Florida.
Lawmakers failed to pass any funding to deal with the mosquito-borne disease before they went on their seven-week break last month. Since then, at least 15 Americans have gotten infected in the Miami area.
“Congress needs to do its job,” Obama said in a news conference at the Pentagon. “Fighting Zika costs money.”
Obama originally asked for $1.9 billion to beef up preparedness, spur research on vaccines and diagnostic tools, and to help local agencies cope with the spread of the virus, especially in areas such as Puerto Rico.
The virus is most dangerous to pregnant women, whose babies can suffer severe birth defects, most notably microcephaly.
“Not only did the Republican-led Congress not pass our request, they worked to cut it, and then they left for summer recess without passing any new funds for the fight against Zika,” Obama said.
The administration transferred $589 million from other programs ― primarily efforts to control Ebola ― but federal officials have warned repeatedly that cash for key Zika programs will expire this month. That includes money needed to develop vaccines and better diagnostic methods.
“Now the money we need to fight Zika is running out. The situation is getting critical,” Obama said.
The president noted that there are more than 1,800 travel-related cases of Zika in the United States, some 40 American soldiers are infected, and nearly 500 pregnant women have the disease.
“Now we have the first local transmission in Florida, and there will certainly be more,” Obama said. “Meanwhile, Congress is on a summer recess. A lot of folks talk about protecting Americans from threats. Well, Zika is a threat to Americans, especially babies, right now.”
The Zika bill that was in the works in Congress failed in mid-July after Republicans added a string of extraneous provisions, including restrictions on contraception, a pro-Confederate flag item, and cuts to Obamacare.
Democrats objected, and voted the bill down. They had voted for a bipartisan version of the measure earlier, but Republicans in the House insisted on changing the legislation to include the partisan riders. Republicans have said repeatedly that they will not return from their break to fix the measure, and say it’s Democrats’ fault for objecting to the riders.
Obama seemed to recognize the intransigence, and appealed to voters to lean on their representatives.
“Once again, I urge the American people to call Congress and tell them to do their job, deal with this threat, help protect the American people from Zika,” Obama said.