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White House Request For Emergency Zika Funding Hits Roadblock In Congress


President Obama asked for $1.9 billion of emergency funding to fight the Zika virus. And Senate negotiators announced today that they've reached a deal for $1.1 billion. While everyone in Congress agrees Zika is a serious problem, emergency funding has been stalled in Congress for months. House Republicans say they still don't have enough information on how the White House intends to spend the money that it's asking for. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: What's strange is Republicans keep asking questions that don't have answers yet, and they know that - questions like how much money should be spent on Zika this year versus next year or how close are we really to a vaccine? Even top Republicans acknowledge these are tricky questions like Hal Rogers. He helps control the purse strings as chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

HAL ROGERS: I guess part of the problem is no one really knows the answers to a lot of these questions about this mosquito and this disease, so that complicates things even more. But we're getting there.

CHANG: But is there a danger in waiting for answers too long and then not sending the funding in in time when it's needed for this emergency?

ROGERS: We have $600 million that we asked them to transfer from unused Ebola money. So they have plenty of money right now.

CHANG: That argument is driving Democrats crazy. They say half a billion dollars of leftover Ebola money isn't nearly enough. They want four times that to accelerate development of a vaccine, expand access to contraception, control mosquitoes, the list goes on. But Republicans like John Fleming of Louisiana will not cave so easily.

JOHN FLEMING: We're not going to give you a blank check. We'll give you the money, but you got to show us how you're going to spend it, and we want accountability for that money. We don't want it siphoned off into some nonsense program.

CHANG: And Republicans say a lot of the money the president wants can wait until next year. Here's Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole.

TOM COLE: These folks are just like generals in the military. They - you know, the right answer is always more. I need as much right now - and I get that. I understand that. We don't live in that world

CHANG: Nope. Scientists say the world they live in is one where they have to constantly beg for research money. Take Robert Malone. He's contracted with the government to help develop Zika drugs, and his group has been working nonstop.

ROBERT MALONE: Three full-time people including myself for the last six months working seven days a week, typically about 12 hours a day.

CHANG: Malone knew at the outset government funding would be too slow, so he actually started a private company called Atheric just for this, thinking private investors would move more quickly. But finances have still been rough and could get rougher if Congress doesn't help out with more funding. Malone says it's unreasonable for Republicans to demand a detailed line item budget for a virus the world knows so little about still.

MALONE: If we were to have a specific budget, it would have to assume that we knew what the specific countermeasures were that we were going to use and deploy. We can't know that right now because there's not sufficient information to make that assessment and determination.

CHANG: Scientists need a lot more information about how many Americans are likely to get sick or face the worst consequences of Zika like autoimmune diseases and birth defects. And if Congress wants to know exactly how much emergency funding is needed for this summer, well, it may be a little too late to be asking that.

MALONE: For infants with Ebola, it took about four to six months to get funds pushed through the pipeline.

CHANG: Wow. So we're already talking about late 2016, early 2017 anyway.


CHANG: But the National Institutes of Health says it still wants to get a vaccine into human studies by the end of summer. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.

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