WASHINGTON — A bitterly divided House passed a Zika funding bill Wednesday, setting up a clash with the Obama administration, and possibly the Senate, over how much federal health officials really need to combat the virus in the United States this summer.
House Republicans said their measure would be the responsible way to help public health officials prepare for the disease. But by providing $622 million in funding, it gives the health agencies only about half of the $1.1 billion the Senate offered on Tuesday, and roughly a third of the $1.9 billion the Obama administration says it needs.
The measure passed on a 241-184 vote, almost entirely along party lines — reflecting the deep disagreements among lawmakers as Democrats unsuccessfully pushed for the full $1.9 billion the Obama administration wanted.
The White House has threatened to veto the House bill, calling it “woefully inadequate.” But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said the bill “guarantees that every cent goes to address the problem at hand,” adding that the Obama request included “slush funds with virtually no limits.”
Top House Republicans say this isn’t the only money they intend to give to the Zika effort. They say this is only intended to get the federal health agencies through the end of September, and then more will come in the regular funding bill for next year.
But they also insist that the Obama administration has more unspent Ebola funds that it could use at any time.
“This is wholly adequate. It’s more than adequate in terms of money,” Rogers said during the floor debate Wednesday.
“Nothing is not being done for lack of money,” added Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma. “The debate here … isn’t about Zika. It’s about whether you’re going to pay for the response.”
The suggestion that the effort should be funded with unspent Ebola funds infuriates administration officials, who say it makes no sense to take money from one public health crisis to pay for another. White House press secretary Josh Earnest called it a “dumb approach” in a briefing Wednesday.
Republicans have promised to replace the Ebola money later if needed. But House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democratic leader, responded: “I won’t hold my breath.”
The House bill would provide $622 million through the end of September for mosquito control; grants to state and local health departments; global health programs; and research to develop a Zika vaccine. To satisfy the most conservative Republicans, it would pay for all of the new spending by cutting other federal funds, including taking unspent money that was supposed to be used for the Ebola crisis.
By contrast, the Senate bill is a bipartisan measure that won votes from both parties, including 22 Republicans. It provides more money — $1.1 billion — but it also would last longer, through September 2017. Unlike the House bill, the Senate version doesn’t try to pay for the new spending by cutting other programs because it’s considered emergency funding.
The House and Senate will have to settle two big differences when they negotiate a final bill: They’ll have to agree on how much money to give the Obama administration, and they’ll have to decide whether to dip into other programs, especially the Ebola money, to pay for it.
“Those will be the basis for whatever negotiation happens,” Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who sponsored the Senate bill with Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, told reporters Tuesday.
Murray called the House effort a “purely partisan bill intended just to give themselves political cover.” But Blunt said he believes the House wants to reach an agreement. “I think the fact that they’re voting on $622 million … indicates that the House, like the Senate, is interested in finding a solution,” he said.
The Obama administration already shifted $500 million in unspent Ebola funds over to the Zika fight, and House Republicans insist there is more that they can use. But administration officials say that was only a temporary measure, and the Ebola money needs to be replaced.
They also point out that some of the Ebola funds — for building or improving public health systems in other countries — was supposed to be spent over five years, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it hasn’t all been spent.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of the White House request and the Senate compromise bill.