WASHINGTON — When it comes to Zika funding, President Barack Obama and Republicans agree on one point: It’s the other guy’s fault.
Growing concerns over the virus left Washington pointing fingers on Thursday about why Congress has yet to approve any of the dollars Obama has requested. The White House charged that GOP lawmakers “frittered away” a chance to deal with a looming crisis, while Republicans said Obama had dropped the ball on key details Congress needs to properly consider his request.
Come summer, when mosquito season arrives, worries about Zika and the birth defects it causes will be “dominating the news,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest warned.
“This is going to be on the front page of newspapers across the country,” Earnest said. “And I don’t know what Republicans are going to say that they did to prepare for it.”
The alarm bells marked a sharp reversal from just a few weeks ago, when the White House downplayed Zika as a weak, nonfatal version of dengue fever. “For most people, the risk of the Zika virus is minimal because the Zika virus has relatively mild symptoms,” Earnest said in late January.
White House aides have since ditched that talking point, in light of mounting research showing the Zika virus is more serious than previously understood. On Wednesday, U.S. health officials declared there was no longer any doubt that Zika leads to babies being born with abnormally small heads and other severe brain defects, confirming researchers’ worst fears.
Bracing for a political firestorm likely to accompany public concern, Republicans finally conceded this week that at least some of the $1.9 billion Obama asked for in February for Zika is needed. But top GOP leaders suggested leftover Ebola funds being redirected for Zika would be enough to hold the Obama administration over until the fall.
Republicans, wary of giving Obama what they said was “almost a slush fund” to deal with Zika, sought to turn the tables by saying it was Obama’s fault his request had been sitting idle for two months. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office touted a series of letters from GOP lawmakers to the White House asking for complex details about how the dollars would be spent — letters that Republicans said had gone unanswered.
Not so fast, the White House said. While Earnest was at the podium for his televised daily press briefing, fielding questions about the request, an aide rushed him a note informing him the White House had, indeed, responded — with a “detailed, four-page response” more than a week ago.
Your move, Republicans.
Ryan’s office said that letter from Obama’s budget director fell short. The White House said those inquiries were overkill.
If lawmakers leave Washington in July for their seven-week vacation without having funded Zika, Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress, could face a big political problem just ahead of the November elections.
Said Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., “We’re trying to be helpful, and want to help.”
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s days are packed, what with Puerto Rico’s financial crisis, the Zika virus and the federal budget.
So at night she often finds refuge, like so many sports fans, parked in front of the flat screen.
“To tell you the honest truth, I have been engaged in sports since last night,” she said Thursday during her weekly news conference.
“The moment that I had to breathe, I watched basketball,” said Pelosi, who has represented her district in San Francisco for nearly three decades.
It was a big night Wednesday for Pelosi and other California hoops fans. The Golden State Warriors set the NBA record for regular season victories with 73. South of Oakland, Kobe Bryant poured in 60 points in his final game as a Los Angeles Laker.
“Very happy about that,” she said.
Pelosi turned reflective, casting athletics as the universal language.
“Under the (Capitol) dome, you can only go so far talking policies,” Pelosi said. “Sports, you can talk any place. Right?”
She finished by quoting the late owner of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis.
“You get in that arena, nobody cares who is a Democrat, who is a Republican,” Pelosi said. “All you want to do is just win, baby. Just win.”
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.
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