U.S. Senate set to approve $1.1 billion in Zika virus funding

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Tuesday cleared the way for approval of $1.1 billion in immediate funds to battle the Zika virus that is linked to birth defects, well above what is in legislation pending in the House of Representatives.

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By a vote of 68-29, senators limited debate on the measure, paving the way for likely Senate approval this week. Two other funding approaches failed to get enough support to advance in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the White House threatened to veto a $622.1 million Zika bill poised to pass the House of Representatives later this week, saying it was “woefully inadequate.”

Unlike the Senate legislation, the House bill also requires that the $622.1 million be fully offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

Many conservative Republicans in the House refuse to approve Zika funds that would add to federal budget deficits, while Democrats and some Senate Republicans favor treating the problem as an emergency that would not have to be financed with spending cuts.

Republican Senator Roy Blunt from Missouri told reporters that the Senate measure “trimmed this package back (from Obama’s request) to what really addresses the emergency at the time.”

Democratic Senator Patty Murray from Washington, who crafted the legislation with Blunt, added, “We are going to need to keep the pressure on House Republicans to set aside their partisan bill and actually get the administration the emergency resources they need.”

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It was unclear how long it might take the Senate and House to work out their differences once they pass their respective bills.

U.S. health officials have concluded that Zika infections in pregnant women can cause microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size that can lead to severe developmental problems in babies. The World Health Organization has said there is strong scientific consensus that Zika can also cause Guillain-Barre, a rare neurological syndrome that causes temporary paralysis in adults.

Last year, Brazil began detecting an increase in microcephaly and the virus has been spreading rapidly in the Americas, with new cases now being reported in warm climates in southern U.S. states including Florida.

House Republicans argue their $622.1 million bill, when coupled with $589 million the Obama administration already shifted to Zika from unused funds to battle Ebola, would provide enough money through Sept. 30, the end of this fiscal year.

The administration says it needs the emergency funds to help state and local governments eradicate mosquitoes that spread the virus and to develop a vaccine.

(This version of the story was corrected to say $622.1 million from $622.1 billion in the 3rd and 11th paragraphs.)

Reporting By Richard Cowan and Timothy Gardner; Editing by Paul Simao and Bernard Orr