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Monday, April 19, 2021

Obama Wants to Fight Zika — But Will Congress Help?

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WASHINGTON — Intense midterm-election talk has clouded a top Obama administration priority for weeks.

President Obama has been pushing state and local officials to test for the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects. Florida officials recently identified a 20-week-old infant who had been infected with the virus.

Since the virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, the health department recommends that residents screen their swimming pools for stagnant water and other sources of insects that transmit the virus, such as ticks, butterflies and flying insects.

The White House has been warning for months that mosquitoes would spread the virus, starting in the South during this summer’s peak mosquito season. But Florida has recently identified the first Zika-carrying mosquitoes in the state, perhaps as early as October, and the virus has been spreading quickly in Miami Beach, too.

The first mother-to-child transmission of the virus — that the virus may have been transmitted via sex — was confirmed on Wednesday.

Still, White House officials are trying to square Obama’s desire to have states act as “first responders” to fighting the Zika virus with the administration’s request for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to address health care and the Zika virus.

The Senate is widely expected to take up the money request this week. But a quick vote is unlikely after Congressional Republicans have declined to increase the federal deficit and reject many of the president’s proposed initiatives.

The $1.9 billion request is smaller than the $2.8 billion the president had hoped to seek. But White House officials want to work with members of Congress to boost the money to a more palatable amount — and even more significantly — while keeping the White House focused on the must-do aspect of the funding request: combating the mosquito-borne virus.

Obama has repeatedly urged Congress to pass this year’s short-term spending bill to keep the government open until the end of the fiscal year at the end of September. Without passing that spending bill, federal agencies will be shut down at midnight Monday — the day before Congress must pass a new spending bill.

It has taken this much work to reach the point of the House delaying a vote on the $1.9 billion funding request until the middle of next week. House and Senate lawmakers are still battling about some of the administration’s priorities, such as whether the money could go to the Justice Department.

According to sources familiar with the talks, the Senate has prepared a bill that includes the $1.9 billion but also includes $1.8 billion in emergency funds that the administration could use without new budget authority.

The additional funding would likely be held in a separate bill. This would allow the White House to press for the additional funds and still remain committed to the short-term spending bill.

But the White House is also weighing whether it would be better to press for emergency funding and risk delaying Congress’s consideration of the longer-term spending bill.

White House officials believe that is a better strategy than to push for emergency funds and help trigger a government shutdown.

Obama will meet with lawmakers about the issue at the White House on Wednesday afternoon.

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