WASHINGTON — Lawmakers left town Wednesday for their spring recess without voting on an emergency funding request for the Zika virus, as the Obama administration and congressional Republicans failed to resolve their disagreement over whether federal health agencies need more money to support research and preparedness.
The adjournment followed appeals from the House minority leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi, and other top Democrats for Congress to remain in Washington for a vote on the measure.
Republicans support further efforts to deal with Zika but are insisting that the Obama administration first use funds that have already been appropriated. Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds health programs, said Congress could still approve some package of emergency funding after the recess — even if it’s not the full $1.9 billion the Obama administration wants.
“They’re doing their job, and we’re doing ours, which is to make sure we give it our due diligence,” Cole told STAT. “Things might not be moving as quickly as the administration might like, but they are moving.”
The House held its final votes Wednesday and then left Washington, with no plans to return until April 12. The Senate started its break a week earlier and is scheduled to return April 4.
In the meantime, federal health officials say they’re so strapped for Zika resources that they have shifted money away from other critical public health programs to buy some time.
House Republicans insist that money it previously appropriated for the response to Ebola can be shifted to the Zika response.
Cole said he’d rather approve any additional needs in the regular appropriations process, rather than as an emergency measure, and that there are problems with the Obama administration’s emergency request that need to be worked out. For example, he said, it tries to give Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell more authority to transfer money between programs “than we would grant to any administration.”
But Cole also said Congress could “backfill” any money that the administration has to spend on Zika response now. For example, he said, some of the Ebola funds were meant to be spent over several years — so “if you need it now for something more immediate, use it now,” and Congress could just replace the money in the next spending bill.
Administration officials, however, say the need for new Zika funds is urgent, and Congress can’t expect the federal health agencies to solve the problem just by moving money around.
“As we have said, while we may be able to repurpose some existing Ebola funding without undermining our ongoing fight against the disease, that alone would not provide a sufficient enough response to the significant threat posed by Zika, which is why Congress should act on the administration’s supplemental request for Zika funding,” said HHS spokesman Kevin Griffis.
Privately, appropriators have been asking the agencies for more accounting details on the unused Ebola money, as well as more details about how they would spend any new emergency funds — and they say they still haven’t gotten answers.
In a March 7 letter to HHS, Cole asked for details on how much Ebola money has been spent, and what hasn’t been spent but is already spoken for.
With no responses from the agencies, though, the House Republican appropriators insist that the Obama administration has all the money it needs.
“I would refer you to our appropriators, who tell us that there is plenty of money in the pipeline right now, money that is not going to Ebola that was already in the pipeline that can go immediately to Zika. So that money can be reprogrammed,” Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters at a Tuesday press conference.
The letters followed a March 2 briefing in which Burwell and other federal health officials —including Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — laid out their case to House Republican and Democratic leaders about why they believe they need emergency funding to deal with the Zika virus.
For one thing, they told the appropriators that $600 million in Ebola money was specifically reserved to help 30 countries improve their public health systems — or, in some cases, build them from scratch — to protect themselves from future infectious disease outbreaks, according to Griffis of HHS. And Ebola hasn’t disappeared from Africa, he pointed out, with Guinea being hit by a new flare-up.
Still, Republicans say it’s their job to be skeptical.
“They always ask for everything they can think of, and part of our job is to say, ‘Look, it’s a lot of money, let’s make sure we’ve used up everything we can,'” Cole said. But in the end, he added, “we’re going to work with them and make sure they get everything they need.”