WASHINGTON — Zika is not Ebola.
And that’s a big reason the House has so far stalled on the Obama administration’s request for $1.9 billion in funding for an emergency response to the Zika virus. Key Republicans say they’re just not hearing a lot of urgency from their constituents.
“It’s not at fever pitch the way it was with Ebola,” said Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
Meadows acknowledged that he’s hearing “some” concerns about Zika, but nothing like it was with Ebola, when constituents were in a near-panic about the prospect of getting infected by travelers from overseas.
There finally is some movement on the Hill: After nearly three months of badgering from the White House and congressional Democrats, the Senate will vote Tuesday on three Zika funding proposals, including a $1.1 billion bipartisan compromise.
And later this week, the House is likely to vote on its own, smaller Zika bill, which would provide $622 million for the effort. But passing it will require winning over the Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly three dozen conservative Republicans with enough political muscle to make the difference in any close vote.
Right now, they’re insisting that the administration should use unspent Ebola money to prepare for Zika, which is where the House bill gets more than half of its funds. That’s a sore spot with Obama administration officials, who insist it would be short-sighted since there have been a handful of new Ebola cases in West Africa.
“When it allocated funding to respond to the Ebola crisis, Congress gave us a critical job to do. It’s important that we finish it,” said Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
Why not declare it an emergency and appropriate new funds? Because the Freedom Caucus members aren’t convinced Zika is a crisis — even in the districts that are the most likely to be hit by the virus.
In some cases, the virus isn’t even on their radar. Representative Dave Brat of Virginia — the man who unseated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor two years ago — said he hadn’t been paying much attention to the funding debate because he wasn’t on the right committees. “I haven’t kept up with the funding or where it’s at, what’s the path,” he said.
Some Freedom Caucus members, however, are slowly coming around to the view that they’ll have to pass something. They know they’ll hear more concern from their districts as mosquito season begins.
Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina said he’s read a lot about the dangers of babies being born with microcephaly because of the virus. Has he heard concern from constituents? “Not as much as I anticipate I will be hearing,” he said. “It doesn’t take but just a few situations for it to seem like an epidemic.”
He said he has started to look at the Obama administration’s funding request, but hasn’t made up his mind on the best approach. “I’m just trying to listen and learn from the experts,” Jones said.
The public health groups that have been lobbying Congress for the Zika money said it’s been especially tough to win over Freedom Caucus members and lawmakers in districts that aren’t expected to be affected by the virus.
“I do think geography plays a role in it,” said Laura Hanen, a lobbyist at the National Association of City and County Health Officials.
Cynthia Pellegrini of the March of Dimes, which has organized a coalition of about 70 public health organizations to push for the Zika money, said all of their meetings on Capitol Hill so far have been with staff members, not the lawmakers themselves.
She said they encountered a lot of GOP skepticism in their early meetings that Zika was really the cause of the microcephaly cases. Now that CDC has established the link between Zika and microcephaly, she said, the main objection is that the Obama administration hasn’t provided enough detail about how the money would be spent.
The challenge for public health lobbyists, Pellegrini said, is that “there’s not a deep bench of Zika experts. We’re all learning about Zika each and every day.” As the summer approaches, however, she believes it will get easier to convince lawmakers that more money is needed.
“I think we’re going to start to see more public attention,” she said. “People are going to say, ‘What are you doing to keep us safe?'”