White House warns Congress: Fight Zika or live to regret it

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WASHINGTON– The White House on Wednesday issued a dire warning to Republicans in Congress: Spend money to prevent the Zika virus from spreading within the United States or regret it later.

“Congress has completely abdicated their responsibility,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, speaking of its inaction on the Obama administration’s request for nearly $2 billion to take extensive preventative measures, such as developing vaccines and widespread mosquito control.

“I take no joy in suggesting that Republicans are going to look back on this time that they’ve had to act on the Zika virus and deeply regret it,” Earnest added.

The White House slammed members of Congress over the administration’s decision to shift more than half a billion dollars that was designated for fighting Ebola to instead be used against Zika.

The Zika virus has been linked to microcephaly — a condition in which a developing fetus’ brain fails to fully grow and babies are born with unusually small heads — as well as Guillain-Barre syndrome, which causes the body to attack its own nerves.

Officials said Wednesday there have been 64 confirmed cases of Zika in pregnant women in the continental U.S. One baby has been born with microcephaly in Hawaii and more cases are being investigated. So far, the U.S. cases appear to have been contracted in other countries where the virus has been circulating.

The White House stressed that even with the shift in funds from the Ebola coffers, the current amount of money available won’t be enough to adequately prepare for what the World Health Organization has called a global health emergency.

“At some point, later this spring or maybe later this summer, all of you and your news organizations are going to be sounding the alarm about the significant threat that is posed by the Zika virus,” Earnest said. “That is going to happen.”

But as Earnest was briefing reporters, the House Appropriations Committee put out a statement explaining its position.

“More than a month ago, we called on the administration to use existing funding and legal authorities to provide the most immediate and effective response to the Zika outbreak,” the statement said. “We are pleased to hear today that federal agencies are heeding our call.”

And offering some reassurance in the face of the White House’s ominous predictions, the statement said, “As we move forward, the Appropriations Committee will continue to monitor the changing needs resulting from this unpredictable crisis to assure the resources necessary for the response are available.”

In the White House’s view, though, until Congress approves more funding, there’s a risk.

The Office of Management and Budget devoted a blog post to the problem on Wednesday, saying, “Without the full amount of requested emergency supplemental funding, many activities that need to start now would have to be delayed, or curtailed or stopped, within months.”