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  1. Florida Politics

Florida Gov. Rick Scott goes to Washington to push for Zika funding 'now'

Gov. Rick Scott addresses members of the media in Washington, D.C., after lobbying members of Florida's delegation to support federal funding for the Zika virus crisis. (Alex Leary |  Times)
Gov. Rick Scott addresses members of the media in Washington, D.C., after lobbying members of Florida's delegation to support federal funding for the Zika virus crisis. (Alex Leary | Times)
Published May 12, 2016

WASHINGTON — With more Zika cases being reported Wednesday in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott implored lawmakers to set aside differences and reach a conclusion on federal funding to fight the virus.

"I know there's politics up here," Scott told reporters after meeting with Florida Republicans on Capitol Hill. "But we're talking about people's lives. . . . Florida is going to be the epicenter, so we need to deal with it right now."

Scott spoke as a possible deal emerged in the Senate to provide $1.1 billion in funding. That falls short of the $1.9 billion sought by President Barack Obama and Democrats, who have accused Republicans of not taking the issue seriously. The White House had already secured $589 million but says more is urgently needed.

Reluctance to support the higher amount still exists among some Florida House Republicans.

"The current proposal by the president and leading Democrats assumes today that this will be a two-year crisis and it unnecessarily commits two years of taxpayer money to the effort, regardless of whether the money will actually be needed in year two," said Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores.

Jolly said he prefers emergency funding that focuses on mosquito abatement and testing kits. "That doesn't require two years of spending $1.9 billion and frankly gets aid to Florida more quickly," he said.

Other Republicans showed various degrees of support.

Zika hasn't been a dominant topic in Washington, but as attention has grown, so has partisan sniping. Meantime, more cases are surfacing in Florida. As of Wednesday, there were 112 reported cases, including three new ones in Volusia and Orange counties.

All the cases are travel-related, meaning someone went to a country and was infected.

"It is just a matter of time before someone contracts Zika through a mosquito bite here in the United States and we have not prepared for it," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, who supports Obama's funding request.

Rubio said he would prefer budget offsets — echoing a position pushed by conservatives — but that it was not mandatory. He noted in a speech from the chamber floor that $500 million of the president's request is to "pay back" funding taken from the fight for Ebola as a stop-gap on Zika.

The deal for $1.1 billion was floated by Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who chairs the appropriations health subcommittee. He said it could surface as an amendment to a spending bill this week.

"We are going to look carefully on this and move forward on a bipartisan compromise in a way that I think people can feel good about," he was quoted saying by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Scott met with Rubio and several House members Wednesday and on Thursday will discuss the issue with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

He took no position on the level of funding required but warned that summer is approaching and that will bring more mosquitoes. Scott also noted Florida would see more travelers due to the Summer Olympics, being held in Brazil.

"Florida is known for preparing for hurricanes. We need to be known for being able to prepare for Zika," he said. "If we wait until after the crisis, the health care costs are going to be way bigger than the preparation costs."

He did echo some conservative calls about the president's request. "I'd love to have $1.9 billion as long as it's spent on Zika," Scott said, adding there should be "safeguards" to ensure the money is used wisely.

Scott has also asked for a congressional field hearing in Miami. He ruled out using state funds, calling Zika a national issue.

Calls for funding gained another supporter Wednesday in Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland.

"I support the president's funding request so we can efficiently fight against and prevent the dangerous effects of the Zika virus," Ross said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. "This is not a matter of political sides. This is a matter of protecting and saving lives, and I will do all within my power to protect my constituents and all Americans."

Rep. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor was more circumspect.

"There is no doubt funding is necessary to address the issue, however, we must determine funds are being used efficiently to keep individuals safe and prevent the spread of Zika," he said. "I have heard directly from stakeholders involved in preventing the spread of Zika. They have concerns about how the funds would be allocated. As we in Congress continue working with stakeholders to determine the best plan of attack, I will continue to be as proactive as possible. My top priority is to keep us safe."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.