The Obama administration says it’s doing what it can to address the Zika outbreak in Florida after giving $35 million in Zika and emergency preparedness funding while blaming Congress for failing to further support Zika prevention efforts.
But Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio charged the White House with holding back and said that approximately $300 million could be made available to help southern Florida cope with the first locally transmitted Zika outbreak in the continental United States.
“I don’t want to ascribe motives: Some people would say they’re doing it because they’re trying to create pressure, to embarrass Congress and potentially Republicans,” Rubio said. “This is not a time for games. I’m saying there is money there now. Let’s fully start to spend that money.”
The allegation that the White House is dragging its feet on spending available Zika funds while Florida struggles to contain the virus is the latest salvo in a bitter partisan war that has jeopardized the administration’s call for nearly $2 billion in funding.
A lot is at stake – particularly for expectant mothers. The mild disease represents a major threat to unborn children. Zika has been linked to an increase in microcephaly in newborns, which results in smaller-than-normal heads and underdeveloped brains.
This is not a time for games. I’m saying there is money there now. Let’s fully start to spend that money.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Federal officials took nearly $600 million that had been aimed at fighting Ebola and shifted it to battle Zika instead when Congress first balked at approving $1.9 billion in funding that the administration had requested. The White House continued to press for the larger amount, but Congress failed to agree and then left for a seven-week summer recess.
White House officials objected to Rubio and other Republicans’ characterization that the administration is not acting fast enough. Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said there was a process for appropriately allocating taxpayer money on the most important priorities and that much of the money was, in fact, unavailable for domestic spending.
More than $200 million of the $374 million available to be spent in the United States has already been committed, he said, leaving $174 million still to be spent.
We hope that this provides a wake-up call to members of Congress that when they get back to Washington from their vacation, they can get to work on addressing this problem.
Eric Schultz, White House spokesman
The Obama administration requested the $1.9 billion in February and has been beating the drum ever since that the virus was coming, Griffis said. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is working on a vaccine, warned last week that it would run out of Zika money in August.
“If we do not have money soon, it is going to impact getting to phase II of the vaccine trials,” Griffis said. “And that could impact whether or not we have more babies born with severe birth defects in the United States.”
Rubio said the onset of locally transmitted Zika was not only a health crisis, but also an economic one, considering that many tourists might rethink coming to South Florida because of the virus. He’s meeting Thursday with Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to discuss the Florida response.
Rubio doesn’t dispute Congress’ role in a slow response and has called for members of Congress to return from vacation to address the crisis. But he said it was clear now that was unlikely to happen and that it was time for the administration to do whatever it could.
The point, he said, is that Florida needs help now and money is available to provide it.
“We need to do something to get funds flowing,” Rubio said. “And the most immediate thing that can happen is to have the president use the funds that are already available to him.”