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.
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.
On Wednesday, a coalition of more than 60 groups, including the March of Dimes, sent lawmakers a letter saying the House GOP bill "fails to provide appropriate resources to address any of the needed public health efforts to protect pregnant women and their infants from Zika virus."
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 transfer 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.
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. Its cost is financed by further cutting unspent Ebola funding and money at the Department of Health and Human Services.
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. Frieden 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."