CDC director warns GOP bill is inadequate to fight Zika

WASHINGTON — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Wednesday that a House GOP measure to combat the Zika virus is inadequate to deal with the swelling threat to public health.

But CDC Director Tom Frieden’s appearance before a closed-door meeting of President Barack Obama’s House Democratic allies isn’t likely to change the outcome of a House debate on the $622 million GOP plan to battle Zika. Republicans controlling the House are moving toward a vote on Thursday, ignoring protests from Democrats and a White House veto threat.

Frieden warned that the GOP measure is inadequate and told the assembled Democrats that the threat from Zika — which can cause severe birth defects — is growing as more people travel to Zika hotspots and as the populations of mosquitoes that spread the disease increase in the summer months.

“He said in our discussion, ‘If this Republican bill is approved to deny this vital CDC and NIH funding, we will not be able to develop the tools to diagnose the virus, combat the mosquitoes, and develop a safe and effective vaccine,'” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. “He said, ‘We cannot monitor all those who are being infected, have already been infected.'”

Obama requested $1.9 billion three months ago to battle Zika. When Congress didn’t act on the request, he devoted almost $600 million in previous appropriations, mostly leftover funding from the recent and successful effort to fight Ebola, to combat Zika. Republicans pressed for the funding shift as a first step to battle Zika and they say the pending measure will carry the battle at least through the Sept. 30 end of the current budget year.

“Everything that has needed to be done has been done,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.

On Tuesday, the Senate advanced a $1.1 billion measure to fight Zika that earned sweeping support from Democrats even though it’s less than the White House request. It is soon to be added to an unrelated spending bill, which adds a procedural wrinkle since the House bill will advance as a separate stand-alone measure.

While the Senate Zika plan is financed as emergency legislation that isn’t subject to budget limits, GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin insisted that the House bill carry offsetting spending cuts. Whether to pair the Zika money with spending cuts could be the most difficult issue in upcoming House-Senate negotiations. Democrats say the GOP measure is inadequate and will slow the testing of a vaccine, underfund mosquito control, and doesn’t provide enough aid to battle Zika overseas. The GOP cuts include taking another $352 million from unspent Ebola funding and tapping a fund that the Department of Health and Human Services wants to use for the Indian health Service and to upgrade Medicare’s computer systems.

The White House has issued a veto threat on the House measure, slated for debate on Wednesday and a Thursday vote, saying it is woefully inadequate and protested that it would only fund the Zika battle through September.

Zika is mainly a threat to unborn children and can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly and other severe birth defects. Zika is commonly spread by mosquitoes, though all of the more than 500 cases in the continental U.S. have been linked to overseas travel.

Republicans say the administration has padded its Zika request and that there is plenty of unspent money in the budget to ameliorate its impact on the budget deficit. Top Republicans such as Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky have successfully pressured the administration to unspent Ebola funds to finance almost $600 million in anti-Zika efforts such as research on the virus and Zika-related birth defects, response teams to limit Zika’s spread, and helping other countries fight the virus.

“This funding bill is the next step in our response,” Rogers said, promising it’ll be enough “to fight and prevent the spread of the Zika virus for the rest of this fiscal year” on Sept. 30.

The GOP measure provides funding for vaccine research, controlling the mosquitoes that spread Zika, develop better tests to detect Zika, and money to foreign governments to quell mosquito populations and inform people how to avoid getting the virus.

Democrats say the GOP measure is inadequate and will slow the testing of a vaccine, underfund mosquito control, and doesn’t provide enough aid to battle Zika overseas.

Democrats are expected to oppose the GOP plan in Thursday’s vote, though some have been cagey.

“I’m concerned about the cuts and after listening to Dr. Friedan this morning it is of great concern to me that they have a whole plan mapped out and they can’t do it,” said top Appropriations Committee Democrat Nita Lowey of New York. “If you’re working on vaccines, if you’re working on long-term issues, they can’t do it. So I am not happy with the Zika bill.”