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New impasse about anti-Zika funding

Yet another impasse has arisen in Congress over federal funding to defend the U.S. against the Zika virus, with the House and Senate now eyeing a wide gulf between them in terms of how much money should be spent.

The Senate voted 68-29 on Tuesday for a $1.1 billion funding package to fight the mosquito-borne virus, but the House voted 241-184 on Wednesday to allocate only $662 million. With dwindling days left on the election-year legislative calendar, and a pile of Appropriations bills still waiting, optimism is now scarce that such a gap can be bridged.

GOP House leaders seemed unconcerned about the impasse on Thursday, as Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California issued a statement praising the $662 million allocation as a “forceful and responsible” response to the Zika virus.

 “After studying the issue and consulting with experts, the House has laid down a path to counter the outbreak, providing funding that we need this year to search for a cure, stop the spread of this disease, and help those already infected with the virus,” McCarthy said. “We must take decisive action to prevent the spread of this virus in the United States.”

The Obama administration in February originally asked for $1.9 billion. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest last week signaled reluctant acceptance of the $1.1 billion total, but this week the administration threatened to veto the House’s $662 million allocation, calling it “woefully inadequate.”

Going forward, one possible solution being pushed by Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on a Appropriations health subcommittee, is to separate the Zika funding issue into a stand-alone bill.  It had been lumped in with a much larger spending package that included transportation, housing, urban development and military construction. Proponents such as Murray believe pulling it out may help it pass on its own.

 “It is a big gulf, but our goal is to use every possible path to get this done,” a senior Democratic aide told AMI Newswire. “We will be pushing Republicans on this, and there’s really no good reason to block it.”

 Another, less desirable option for pro-Zika funding senators is to take up Senate Republicans on an offer from GOP Whip John Cornyn to “fast-track” the funding bill, or accelerate it through the chamber, in exchange for funds taken from the Affordable Care Act. However, Democrats in both chambers have already signaled their disapproval of that idea.

 Yet another remaining glitch is the insistence from House Republicans that any funds for Zika be “offset,” or paid for by spending cuts elsewhere. GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have advocated that approach, and the issue remains unresolved.

 Beyond Capitol Hill, another development came Friday, as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that the number of pregnant U.S. women with the virus has more than tripled this year, to 157 cases from 48. Pregnant women are considered one of the most at-risk categories for the virus because it has been linked to a wide array of birth defects, including blindness, muscular defects and abnormally small brains in infants. CDC officials also say the disease can be sexually transmitted.

 In a report published online, the CDC said the increase partly reflects new tracking methods the agency is using, such as counting cases in which the women did not report any symptoms.  "These new numbers reflect a broader group of pregnant women - pregnant women who have any laboratory evidence of possible Zika virus infection, and whether or not they recalled symptoms," a CDC statement said.

But the report also said more women simply have caught the virus now, and added that there are an additional 122 pregnant women with the virus in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico.

The House is tentatively scheduled to be in session only 16 more days before July, when the political conventions begin to grind legislative work in Washington to a halt. The Senate is in session for 20 more days.