WASHINGTON — The Obama administration plans to spend unused Ebola funds to fight the Zika virus, a breakthrough that could ease the standoff with Congress over the administration’s request for emergency money for the crisis.
The administration will jump-start the Zika effort using leftover money that Congress had given the health agencies to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, according to two congressional sources. The biggest amount of unused money is $600 million that was intended to help 30 countries improve, and in some cases build, public health systems to make them better prepared to fight future infectious diseases.
The move, first reported by the Associated Press, could make it easier to negotiate with congressional Republicans over the rest of the Zika package. The Obama administration had asked for $1.9 billion in emergency funds to fight the spread of the virus, but top House Republicans pushed back, saying the administration should first use any money Congress has already provided for Ebola that hasn’t been spent.
That response led to a series of urgent warnings from federal health officials, who said agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were desperately shifting money away from other vital health programs to buy time until Congress agreed to pay for a robust Zika response.
Despite the public deadlock, though, there have already been signs of flexibility. White House press secretary Josh Earnest even hinted at such a move in a February briefing, in which he noted that “there may be a point in time in which we feel like there are some resources from our Ebola efforts that could be used for other things without impacting our critical efforts against Ebola.”
And in an interview with STAT last month, Representative Tom Cole, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds health programs, suggested that Congress could “backfill” any Ebola money that the administration had to spend now by replacing it in the next regular funding bill. He also didn’t rule out a smaller emergency funding bill once Republicans are convinced the administration has spent all of the money it already has on hand.
In a letter Tuesday to Republican and Democratic leaders, more than 60 public health and medical groups urged Congress to approve the emergency Zika money — though they also said lawmakers should “provide new funding rather than repurpose money from other high priority programs.”