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Washington • The House passed $622 million in emergency funding to combat the Zika virus late Wednesday, adopting an idea first proffered by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, to shift unused money Congress appropriated to fight Ebola.
But the White House says that is far too little and wants to keep the Ebola fund intact. President Barack Obama is threatening to veto the measure, setting up contentious negotiations that could last into the summer when the virus is expected to spread farther into the United States.
Stewart called the veto threat "wrongheaded" and said this money is just a start. He believes Congress would hand over more as long as the White House can explain what it would be used for.
"We are not playing games with this," Stewart said in a Tribune interview Wednesday before the House passed the bill on a vote of 241-184, mostly along partisan lines. "There was a sense of urgency and there still is with Zika. This is something we should attack quick and rather than wait for appropriations process, we could move that money today."
The Senate passed a $1.1 billion Zika funding bill that didn't touch the Ebola fund; instead it would add to the cost to the national deficit. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, joined 68 colleagues in support of that bill.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was among the 30 Republican senators to oppose it. He did so because he preferred the proposal suggested by Stewart.
Utah's other three House Republicans supported the bill on Wednesday.
Utah found its first confirmed case of the virus in early March and there have been 500 cases in the United States. The disease is spread by mosquitoes and sexual contact, and has been found to cause babies to be born with undersized heads.
It's spreading rapidly in South America, Central America and the Caribbean and could move north as temperatures rise and families go on summer vacations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked for $1.9 billion in funding to study the disease and combat the mosquitoes and when Congress failed to act quickly the Obama administration shifted $600 million in unused Ebola funds to start fighting the disease.
Democrats have hammered Republicans on the issue, warning that they will regret not moving faster and providing more funding if the disease spreads.
"We can stop this crisis before it gets worse, but we have to act now and fully fund the president's request," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., according to The Associated Press. "Months from now, when the results of our inaction become apparent, we will ask ourselves, 'Why did we delay? Why did we wait?'"
Stewart said the House plan provides the needed short term funds and he doesn't see a way to remove politics from the debate, especially in a campaign year. He anticipates that in the weeks to come congressional leaders will reach a deal for funding somewhere between the Senate and House proposal.
Stewart, a member of the Appropriations Committee, suggested the unused Ebola funds, because he doesn't want to increase the debt. The White House argues that in an emergency, such as this, that consideration should be set aside.