WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Tuesday took its first vote on a measure that would direct $1.1 billion in emergency funding to help health officials combat the spreading Zika virus.
Democrats and the White House wanted more -- a total of $1.9 billion -- and the House wants to authorize far less. It puts the two chambers at odds, potentially further dragging out the debate as health officials struggle to understand the virus beyond its cause of the birth defect microcephaly.
While the emergency measure advanced on Tuesday doesn’t fulfill the entire amount requested by the White House, Democrats voted to push the provision toward final passage -- which should come later this week. Other options were presented alongside it: either take funds from other programs, or fully fund the administration's $1.9 billion request.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who brokered the emergency provision that ultimately passed in a 68-29 procedural vote with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), called the money a “downpayment” on the president’s original proposal.
“It would provide much-needed relief for Puerto Rico, backfill nearly $100 million in essential public health funding the administration was forced to reprogram, invest in prevention and support services for pregnant woman and families at home and abroad, and put research dollars toward developing a vaccine,” Murray said on the Senate floor.
Ahead of the vote series, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urged his Republican colleagues to ultimately support fully funding the president’s plan, and respond to Zika with a sense of “urgency.”
“Why take the chance that at some point this summer we could have a significant and serious outbreak in the United States of America, and everybody here is going to be back in their home state doing their campaign stuff,” Rubio said. “You’re going to have to come back here ... and explain to people why when doctors and medical experts were warning us that this was a significant risk we decided to lowball it, we decided to spend less than what’s being called for.”
Rubio warned Republicans in the House, who put forward a $622 million measure (a third of the administration’s proposal), to “not play with fire.” The proposal offered by House Republicans would take money from current health programs to deal with the mosquito-borne disease. Republican leaders in the House argue the fresh money would be an addition to the $600 million the White House has already redirected toward Zika from previously-appropriated Ebola funds.
Attempting to reach Republicans in the House, Rubio argued that the way Zika “impacts unborn children alone should call us to action.”
“At the end of the day, these are the people we should be fighting for, and we can quite frankly do much better than what the House is proposing,” he said.
The number of travel-related Zika cases reported in the U.S. is 1,200, including those in Puerto Rico, which is expected to be hit hard by the disease. The commonwealth confirmed its first Zika-related microcephaly case this month.
On Tuesday, the White House issued a veto threat against the House's $622 million proposal, which would dip again into Ebola funds. In its statement the administration called the House measure “woefully inadequate to support the response our public health experts say is needed.”