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Feb. 11 — Proposed emergency funding to combat the Zika virus appears to have some support on Capitol Hill, but a key senator indicated Feb. 11 he wanted to scrutinize the details before fully endorsing the White House's $1.8 billion request.
“I’m supportive at some level, but now it’s time to look at the proposal and see what the specifics are,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 11 shortly after presiding over a hearing about President Barack Obama's request for $1.8 billion in supplemental emergency funds for Zika. The mosquito-borne virus that's been spreading throughout the Americas has been linked to serious birth defects and was declared a global health emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel advisory that pregnant women consider delaying their travel plans to places where a Zika virus outbreak has been identified.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters the same day that he has met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and appropriators in both chambers to discuss plans to move the supplemental spending bill this spring.
“We’re getting prepared,” Ryan said when asked about the president's supplemental request. “We’re waiting for the official submission from the administration to then scrub it. But we do anticipate action on this because this is a problem we want to get ahead of.”
Most of the proposed emergency money would fund efforts at the CDC, but the National Institutes of Health would receive $200 million to develop vaccines and diagnostic tests.
“The situation is urgent because we are learning more every day,” CDC Director Tom Frieden told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
But there is a push in both the House (H.R. 4446) and the Senate (S. 2518) to redirect emergency funds for Ebola toward Zika response and preparedness instead of authorizing new money . Both witnesses before Blunt's health panel—Frieden and Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the NIH—indicated that strategy wouldn't work because that money already has been assigned to important programs.
“Ebola isn't over,” Frieden said. “Those dollars are fully committed.”
Fauci told Bloomberg BNA that the NIH has obligated all of its funding from the emergency Ebola funds. The Obama administration requested more than $6 billion to thwart the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, which Congress included in its fiscal year 2015 appropriations.
When asked if the president's request was sufficient, both Frieden and Fauci said they submitted their budget justifications based on needs over the next one or two years. Without the supplemental funding, Fauci said, the NIAID is using limited funding that was allocated to other, related flaviviruses to meet the target of moving to an initial clinical trial by the end of the summer.
When asked about next steps, Blunt said his subcommittee needs to make a recommendation about the funding request to the full Senate Appropriations Committee. Both Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) attended the Feb. 11 hearing, which Blunt said was helpful.
“The next thing I’ll do is reach out to the House chairman and ranking member and talk to them about where the House is,” Blunt told Bloomberg BNA. “We're also asking our staff now to look at all of the numbers—the top numbers and the breakdown numbers—and really analyze whether those numbers appear to be numbers that are totally and absolutely justified.”
“It was helpful today that both Dr. Frieden and Dr. Fauci indicated that they were internally putting things aside that they otherwise would be doing to respond to this with the money they already have,” Blunt added. “It’s an important thing for the committee and the Congress to understand.”
—With assistance from Nancy Ognanovich.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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More about the hearing is available at http://1.usa.gov/1O5bBmO.
The White House emergency request is available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/08/fact-sheet-preparing-and-responding-zika-virus-home-and-abroad.
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