By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House and congressional Democrats pressured Republicans on Thursday for bipartisan Zika-funding legislation, saying efforts to combat the growing mosquito-born health problem are being undercut by partisan gridlock in Congress.
In a media conference call organized by Democratic lawmakers, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the lack of funding has made it difficult for the U.S. health agency to ramp up mosquito-control and diagnostic testing and new research efforts.
President Barack Obama asked the Republican-controlled Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight Zika more than four months ago. But as Congress prepares to begin a seven-week summer recess on July 15, lawmakers are bogged down in partisan bickering over a $1.1 billion Republican measure that Democrats predict will fail.
"We are at the 11th hour and 59th minute before Congress is gone all summer," said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, which is among a number of southern U.S. states likely to be hard-hit by the Zika infection.
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.
Over the past few days, Obama has urged Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and top Senate Democrats to adopt a bipartisan approach to funding. Senate Democrats called on McConnell and House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan to revive a bipartisan measure that passed the Senate in May.
But McConnell's office had no immediate comment. The Kentucky Republican has said he would stick with the current legislation, which was agreed by House and Senate negotiators and has already passed the House.
The CDC announced on Thursday that it is monitoring 320 pregnant U.S. women with laboratory evidence of Zika infection, as of June 30. The number is up from 287 a week earlier.
In Puerto Rico, as many as 50 pregnant women are becoming infected every day, CDC Director Thomas Frieden said.
Frieden said the CDC has spent most of the $222 million it has for fighting Zika in the United States on state and municipal efforts, funding, staffing and equipment.
"It's frankly difficult to navigate with so many unknowns," Frieden said. "That's why we haven't been able to do things like begin ramping up centers of excellence to improve the performance of diagnostic tests, of mosquito control and to begin some of the really in-depth studies," he said.
Additional funding would also aid vaccine research by the National Institutes of Health, and help community health centers in areas that are experiencing the highest rates of Zika transmission.
The Republican measure failed in the Senate on June 28 when Democrats objected to Republican provisions, including one to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving funds to combat what can be sexually transmitted infection.
"They'll force yet another failed vote on this cynical legislation and then pack their bags for the longest Senate vacation since 1954," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said earlier on Thursday.
Rather than providing new funding, the Republican plan would take money from battling the Ebola virus as well as from funds set aside for implementing the Obamacare health insurance program in U.S. territories.
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. The connection between Zika and microcephaly first came to light last fall in Brazil, which has now confirmed more than 1,600 cases of microcephaly that it considers to be related to Zika infections in the mothers.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by James Dalgleish, Bernard Orr)