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Senate, House to negotiate funding amount for Zika response efforts

The Senate on Wednesday voted to go to conference with the House to negotiate funding for the United States' Zika virus response efforts, AP/ABC News reports (Taylor, AP/ABC News, 6/8).

Background on Zika

The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease that has spread across Latin America over the past year. Researchers recently learned that Zika can also be transmitted through sexual activity. The virus is not easily diagnosed, and it does not have a cure or vaccine. It is linked to the birth defect microcephaly, a condition in which an infant is born with an abnormally small head and brain. The condition is fatal for some infants, while others experience permanent disabilities.

Officials in Brazil and Honduras have issued guidance recommending that women avoid pregnancy. El Salvador's recommendation is that women not get pregnant until 2018. However, many countries in Latin America restrict access to contraception and often ban abortion. In addition, women have been advised to protect themselves against mosquitos, but insect repellant can be unaffordable for low-income women.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak and its link to microcephaly a public health emergency of international concern. Separately, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement directing nations affected by the Zika virus to remove bans on access to sexual and reproductive health care services.

U.S. response efforts

The White House has called for $1.9 billion to combat the virus. Amid congressional delays on the funding request, a senior administration official in April said the administration would transfer more than $500 million in funding allocated to combating the Ebola virus to Zika response efforts. CDC in May announced that it will allocate more than $85 million to U.S. states and territories to combat the Zika virus.

The House and Senate have proposed separate bills in response to the funding request, which must be merged in conference committee.

The Senate proposal -- an amendment (SA 3900) included in a larger appropriations bill (HR 2577) -- is relatively similar to the White House's request. However, the amendment does not repay much of the reallocated Ebola money, nor does it provide funding to assist the Medicaid program in Puerto Rico, which is considered a Zika "hot spot." A provision in the measure would allocate $248 million to address Zika abroad through maternal and child health programs, mosquito control and public information campaigns. It does not require the government to offset the funding allocations with spending cuts elsewhere.

The House bill (HR 5243) would provide $622 million to address the Zika virus. The measure, which requires offsets, would fund U.S. response efforts through September. The House also approved a bill (HR 897) that would ease pesticide regulations to help efforts to spray for Zika.

Both the House and Senate proposals include language from the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funding for most abortion care. The White House has threatened to veto the House measure, calling it an inadequate response to the Zika virus (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/2).

Senate, House to negotiate funding amount

After voting 93-2 in a procedural vote, the Senate on Wednesday agreed by voice vote to set up conference negotiations over how much money should be allocated to the country's Zika response efforts.

According to Politico Pro, the Senate in a 46-49 vote also rejected a proposal by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that would have prohibited the conference committee from using Ebola funding in the final proposal and to replenish the nearly $600 million in Ebola funding already appropriated for Zika response efforts by the Obama administration (Diamond, Politico Pro, 6/9 [subscription required]).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, "We all agree that the Zika virus is a real threat and needs to be addressed ... We're now ready to go to conference and complete a final bill."

Liberal lawmakers voice concerns

According to The Hill's "Floor Action," liberal lawmakers in the Senate -- who have called on Congress to meet Obama's request for $1.9 billion in funding -- said they would not accept a measure that includes less than $1.1 billion. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) called that amount a "floor" to what could receive liberal lawmakers' support.

Separately, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) expressed concern over the limited funding proposed by conservative lawmakers in the House, comparing it to "bringing a watering can to a house fire" (Carney, "Floor Action," The Hill, 6/8).

Liberal lawmakers also have opposed spending cuts to offset the cost of the measure (AP/ABC News, 6/8).