Senate deal reached on reduced Zika funds, but Florida senators still seek full amount

Published May 12, 2016

WASHINGTON — Top Senate negotiators announced agreement Thursday on a $1.1 billion emergency funding measure to battle the Zika virus that is expected to get sweeping support in a vote next week.

However, Florida's senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, announced a plan to provide the full $1.9 billion in funding that President Barack Obama had requested.

Washington Democrat Patty Murray told reporters that she also still prefers Obama's proposal but has reached agreement with Roy Blunt, R-Mo., on the smaller measure, which is likely to be added next week to a bill funding veterans and transportation programs.

The administration requested emergency funding to battle Zika in February but Republicans controlling Congress have been slow to react, and instead forced the administration last month to tap more than $500 million worth of unspent Ebola funding to battle Zika. The compromise measure fails to restore most of that money.

"I have pushed for the $1.9 (billion) since the beginning. I think it's the right package," Murray said. "But I have reached an agreement with Blunt on what we can put into a package and we'll have a vote on it."

RELATED COVERAGE: Florida Gov. Scott goes to Washington to push for Zika funding

To get the full $1.9 billion, Nelson and Rubio will introduce an amendment to a military spending bill expected to come before the full Senate as early as next week.

"The administration has been clear from the start: it's going to take $1.9 billion to stop the spread of this virus, not $1.1 billion," Nelson said.

"I've said repeatedly that Congress should not allow politics to delay action on Zika, and I'm hopeful we'll begin to see some meaningful action on this public health emergency very soon," Rubio said. "There's no reason every proposal to address Zika cannot be bipartisan and earn broad support, and I'm hopeful we can reach a final outcome that fully addresses the problem. As I said yesterday, no one wants the Zika issue to become a full-blown crisis that leaves us scrambling to respond. Let's deal with this now and protect our people, including the American citizens in Puerto Rico who have been most impacted so far. The strain on Puerto Rico's health system from Zika must be addressed, as this proposal does."

A news release stated, "It will now be up to Senate leadership to decide whether to bring either or both proposals up for a vote when the Senate begins consideration of the military spending bill next week."

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement, "In the months since President Obama requested $1.9 billion to fight Zika, Senate Republicans have sat on their hands and done nothing to address this emerging crisis. Allocating half of the President's request to fight the spread of Zika is not enough, especially when the amount will likely be reduced further by House Republicans and will not be available until the fall at the earliest."

As Reid's statement indicates, GOP leaders in the House are likely to press for a much smaller amount and pay for it by cutting other programs or using leftover Ebola money that was passed at the end of 2014.

Across the Capitol, at a hearing called by House Democrats, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged, "It is very difficult to get people to invest in something that hasn't happened yet."

The Zika virus can cause microcephaly, a severe birth defect in which babies are born with abnormally small heads. It is spread by mosquitoes and sexual contact and is likely to spread more widely during mosquito season.

Federal health officials are not predicting widespread outbreaks of Zika in the continental United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 500 case of Zika in the continental United States, all of which are related to overseas travel.

Information from the Associated Press and Times Washington Bureau Chief Alex Leary was used in this report.