Senate Throws $1.1 Billion|at Fight Against Zika Virus

     WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate on Thursday officially approved a $1.1 billion spending package to help fight against the spreading Zika virus.
     The Zika package falls short of the $1.9 billion President Barack Obama requested from Congress in February, but is a compromise between Republicans and Democrats who spent months haggling over how to respond to the spreading virus.
     The package takes the form of an amendment to a bill appropriating funds for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, and also for military construction.
     “It’s a serious problem, and if we can solve that problem, we ought to solve it,” Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, said after leaving the vote. “I don’t want to see a bunch of newborn children with the difficulties that Zika brings to them.”
     The Senate tentatively approved the bipartisan spending package, offered by Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, and Patty Murray, D-Washington state, on Tuesday and formally passed it Thursday afternoon before approving the full appropriations bill.
     Before deciding on the Blunt-Murray package Tuesday, the Senate first struck down two competing measures. One from Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Bill Nelson, D-Florida, would have funded the full request from the president and another from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would have provided $1.1 billion for Zika with offsets from the Prevention and Public Health Fund within the Affordable Care Act.
     The Blunt-Murray Zika package provides $361 million to the Centers for Disease Control and $200 million more for the National Institutes of Health. Blunt said it will fund the efforts against Zika until next September, when he hopes a vaccine will be available.
     The Zika virus is spread by mosquito bites and sexual contact and has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes infants to be born with abnormally small heads and can cause developmental delays or even death. The CDC has warned pregnant women against traveling to areas where Zika is present.
     More than 1,300 people in the United States are infected with the virus.
     While the agreement passed Thursday falls $800 million short of what the president requested earlier this year, Blunt said the savings come from eliminating building construction and other requests not directly related to the budding emergency.
     “This amendment will responsibly focus on the prevention, control, and treatment of the Zika virus,” Blunt said in a statement issued after the amendment passed Thursday afternoon. “The Zika virus is a public health emergency, and I’m disappointed that the administration attempted to use this situation to push Congress to fund non-emergency items when the focus should be on combating the Zika virus. I’m pleased this measure passed the Senate, and I look forward to working with the House to put a bill on the president’s desk that will help protect Americans.”
     Blunt also noted the package passed Thursday comes on top of the nearly $600 million the White House transferred in April from the fund set aside to combat the Ebola outbreak.
     Democrats have repeatedly hit Republicans for being slow to respond to Zika and have made the delay a main point of contention in the Senate in recent weeks, right alongside their continued assault on the Republican blockade of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
     Even on Tuesday when Republicans came to the floor with a compromise, Democrats promised to continue pushing for the full funding request.
     “We view the Senate plan as a down payment in the battle against Zika, not the full amount,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
     Republicans like Cornyn were initially reluctant to give the administration money without knowing how it would be spent. Those concerns could cause a problem again for the package passed Thursday, as the House has reportedly been working on a much smaller allotment that could threaten the Senate plan if the two come to conference.

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