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GOP Congressman Defends House Zika Funding Package

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today that he hopes Congress does the right thing to support fighting the Zika virus without diverting money from other efforts, including Ebola. And Congress is having trouble getting on the same page about Zika. The Senate passed a bill last week that would provide $1.1 billion for mosquito control and vaccine research.

The House version provides around $620 million, which would be redirected from an Ebola fund, among other sources. Now, this split comes as we learned in the last week that nearly 300 pregnant women in the U.S. and its territories have the Zika virus. Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma is a cosponsor of the House bill.

Welcome to the program.

TOM COLE: Hey, it's great to be with you.

CORNISH: Earlier this week, we heard from Ron Klain, who led the White House response to Ebola. And he said this, it's not a question of whether babies will be born in the U.S. with microcephaly as a result of Zika. It's a question of when and how many? And he said for years to come, these children will be a human reminder of the cost of absurd wrangling in Washington.

What is your response to that?

COLE: Well, frankly, I think he's misinformed. The $600 million has already been appropriated. That somehow gets lost in the process. And the moment the president declared emergency, he was informed by the House Appropriations Committee, spend whatever you need. You've got plenty of money in various funds. We will backfill and replace that money as needed.

This bill is an additional $620-odd million, so roughly two thirds of the $1.9 billion that the president's requested. The rest will be provided in the normal appropriations process. The only real dispute here is do you simply charge this to the national credit card, that is, not offset it - just go borrow additional money?

Or do you use existing funds and the normal funds and appropriations to take care of what's genuinely an emergency and ought to get top priority in terms of funding?

CORNISH: Do you have any concerns about appropriations being held up this fall and holding up this effort?

COLE: Not in terms of this because first of all, the administration literally has billions of dollars, unobligated dollars, set aside to use and the assurance that the money, as used, will be replaced as needed.

CORNISH: There's been some talk of a public health emergency response fund, sort of like a FEMA for public health emergencies. We've had the head of the CDC, Tom Friedan, say that he's heard from both Republicans and Democrats that this could be helpful in cases like this where time is of the essence. Where do you stand on that idea?

COLE: I think there's considerable merit in that proposal. We have that with FEMA, and it's big enough to take care of, quote, "an average disaster." It's not big enough, for instance, to take care of something like a Hurricane Sandy or Katrina. So I think that's something we ought to look at. We are looking at it, and I would just ask people to look at the track record here.

We've put more money in CDC than the president asked for, more money in NIH than he asked for. We will do that again this year, and we will take care of Zika. As a matter of fact, we'll now start negotiations with the Senate. We had that vote today in the House of Representatives to begin what's called a conference.

So we sit down with our colleagues in the Senate and come to a common agreement.

CORNISH: Oklahoma has had four Zika cases so far. These are all travel related. What are you hearing from your constituents? What are your concerns about that?

COLE: Well, the concerns are real. Sooner or later, we're going to have a local outbreak - probably won't have anything as massive as the affected countries because this mosquito isn't as prevalent. But there's certainly plenty of mosquitoes. And my constituents, I think, honestly have pretty good confidence when they're not alarmed unduly by a lot of demagoguery that the government will do the right thing in the end.

And I think it will. It has - it certainly did in Ebola, it's done in other outbreaks. But doing it prudently, using the money that you have, replacing it in future accounts that are not going to be spent for years seems like the wise thing to do.

CORNISH: Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, thank you for speaking with us.

COLE: Oh, thank you. It was my great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.