Politics & Government

Senate approves Zika money, but Obama, Rubio say it’s not enough

President Barack Obama has asked for $1.9 billion in funding to assist in the fight against the Zika virus. The Senate approved $1.2 billion.
President Barack Obama has asked for $1.9 billion in funding to assist in the fight against the Zika virus. The Senate approved $1.2 billion. AP

A Senate vote Tuesday to provide $1.1 billion in emergency Zika funding won’t stop the fight in Washington. It’s not enough, say some of Florida’s lawmakers, where the virus has already infected 112 people.

President Barack Obama’s top aides advised him to veto a pending House of Representatives bill that would provide even less money. And the White House press secretary pressured Florida Republicans to push their party’s lawmakers to help fund Obama’s full $1.9 billion request.

In a late-afternoon vote that followed weeks of wrangling, the Senate by 68-29 approved the $1.1 billion legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state.

With Florida facing the most Zika infections outside Puerto Rico, the state’s senators, Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bill Nelson, a Democrat, reluctantly voted for the compromise measure while continuing to press colleagues to provide the additional $800 million sought by Obama.

All 45 Senate Democrats voted for the $1.1 billion bill. It divided Senate Republicans, with 29 opposing the measure and 23 supporting it. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who’s running for the Democratic presidential nomination, called the compromise “a good step” but did not vote because of his campaign travel.

Rubio, who’s broken with Senate Republican leaders in an all-out press for the entire $1.9 billion, took to the Senate floor once more to plead for the funds, which Obama requested of Congress almost three months ago.

“Let’s not play with fire,” Rubio said. “As of now there are 112 people in the state of Florida who have been infected. We have many more American citizens who have been infected in Puerto Rico.”

The Miami Republican, a failed 2016 presidential candidate, added: “There is no reason why we should not fully fund this (Obama) proposal and listen to the doctors and the health experts that are asking for this.”

The United States has more than 1,200 cases of Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that causes birth defects. Florida has more confirmed cases than any other state; nearly 700 are infected in Puerto Rico. Florida is home to 1 million people from the island territory, where the first U.S. death from Zika was confirmed three weeks ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While Rubio tried to persuade the Senate to approve the $1.9 billion, Obama said he would veto an even smaller House appropriations bill providing $622 million in new funding.

“If the president were presented with House Resolution 5423, his senior advisers would recommend he veto the bill,” the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.

The OMB described the House legislation as “woefully inadequate to support the response our public health experts say is needed.”

In his Senate speech, Rubio also derided the House bill.

“...Quite frankly, that’s just not going to cut it,” Rubio said.

Passage of the more generous Senate bill, however, makes it less likely that Congress will send Obama legislation providing only $622 million. Even if the House approves that amount, a conference committee of senators and representatives would have to find a compromise figure, likely between $1.1 billion and the lower amount.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, last month introduced a measure that would provide the full $1.9 billion sought by Obama.

Republican lawmakers in the GOP-controlled House and Senate have blocked Obama’s appropriations measure in disputes over finding spending offsets to avoid increasing the federal debt.

Rubio rejected that argument. “Provide the $1.9 billion in offsets,” he said. “I guarantee you will be able to find that fairly quickly. Provide strict accountability measures.”

Obama’s aides praised Rubio’s efforts and targeted Republican House members from Florida.

“The Republican senator from the state of Florida has indicated that the Congress should act expeditiously to pass the $1.9 billion funding proposal that our public health experts say is needed,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “I think it’d be interesting to understand what position the other Republicans from Florida who represent the state in Congress think of this.”

Rep. Vern Buchanan moved quickly to support Obama’s emergency request.

“Congress needs to recognize the urgent threat posed by the Zika virus,” the Sarasota Republican said. “If health experts at the Centers for Disease Control tell us they need $1.9 billion to protect the public, then we should listen and take swift action to fully fund efforts to contain the deadly virus.”

Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami has also backed the administration’s Zika package, but the state’s other GOP House members are silent.

“We understand the real threat that Zika poses to our families and neighbors,” Curbelo said Tuesday.

Rep. Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee Democrat, sent House Speaker Paul Ryan a letter Tuesday signed by more than 120 other Democratic lawmakers urging full funding. Sen. Nelson of Orlando has also pressed colleagues to act.

Among other potential defects, Zika can cause microcephaly, a disease that produces abnormally small heads in newborns of infected mothers. The virus is carried primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is common throughout the Southern United States, particularly in the summer. It also can be transmitted sexually from an infected partner.

“Look, this is a devastating disease,” Rubio said. “It’s taken lives throughout our hemisphere, and the way it impacts unborn children alone should call us to action.”

During a visit to Washington last week, Gov. Rick Scott lobbied for the bill and met with Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to discuss the spreading virus. He called on Congress to hold a field hearing in Miami.

Top U.S. health officials say Zika could spread to 30 states, with the most infections likely in the Southeastern United States, where mosquitoes have more breeding grounds.

“I believe we must confront the threat of Zika with the resources this tragic virus demands and the compassion the women and children threatened by it deserve,” said Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, who voted for the $1.1 billion bill.

Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald and Lesley Clark contributed to this article.