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Obama To Meet With Congressional Leaders On Monday: White House

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama has invited congressional leaders to the White House on Monday to discuss legislative priorities for this month, a White House official said.

The invitation was extended to House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both Republicans, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and his House counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, the White House official said Friday on customary condition of anonymity.

The group is expected to talk about a continuing resolution, or CR, to temporarily fund the government when the 2017 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Congress has yet to approve full appropriations bills to fund the government in fiscal 2017, a senior Democratic congressional aide said.

They also will talk about funding to combat the outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, the aide said.

On Friday, House Republicans caucused on spending priorities, and several emerged from the meeting saying discussions focused on a handful of goals, including a CR that would expire before year end.

“The point is the priorities: Zika, defense and a CR that involves as little as possible in as short an amount of time,” Representative Ryan Zinke told Reuters.

House Republicans also said they discussed the possibility of separate spending bills, which they called mini-omnibus bills or “minibuses” that could provide longer-term funding for Zika, defense and the Department of the Interior later in the year.

On Thursday, Pelosi called for a CR that would include a year’s funding to combat Zika.

Republicans in Congress are planning a light legislative agenda, a strategy some say is partly aimed at bogging down Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton if she becomes president after the Nov. 8 election.

Senior congressional aides have told Reuters their goals for the coming months include bills to keep the government funded, to combat the spread of Zika and to renew laws guarding the nation’s water resources.

A U.S. Supreme Court seat vacant since Feb. 13 likely will remain unfilled until next year and a sweeping Pacific free-trade deal negotiated by Obama will be on hold, if not doomed.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan; writing by Doina Chiacu and David Alexander; editing by Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis)

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama listens to a question during a news conference at the conclusion of his participation in the ASEAN Summits in Vientiane, Laos September 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Republicans’ Congress Lull Could Impede A Clinton Presidency

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans in Congress are planning a light legislative agenda as they return from their long summer break on Tuesday, a strategy some say is designed in part to bog down Hillary Clinton if she becomes president.

It is not uncommon for the Congress to take it slow in an election year and legislative delays could work in Republicans’ favor if their nominee Donald Trump takes the White House in November.

But the strategy will also pay dividends if it is Clinton who takes office on Jan. 20. She will be forced to deal with old baggage rather than focus on her agenda of infrastructure investments and immigration and Wall Street reforms.

“If Hillary wins, we force her to waste time, resources, momentum, early good will and political capital – all on cleanup duty,” said a senior aide to one Republican senator.

If all goes as expected this autumn, a U.S. Supreme Court seat, vacant since Feb. 13, will remain unfilled until sometime next year. A sweeping Pacific free-trade deal negotiated by President Barack Obama will be on hold, if not doomed.

And if many conservative Republicans get their way, government agencies will run on stop-gap funding from Oct. 1 until sometime in February or March. That means that the next president would have to negotiate a longer-term deal or face the prospect of government shutdowns in the early days of a new administration.

Senior congressional aides have told Reuters their agenda for the coming months include bills to keep the government funded, combat the spreading Zika virus and renewing laws guarding the nation’s water resources.

Other items would help the majority Republicans score political points with key constituencies before the November elections, even though they have no chance of becoming law.

These include scolding the Obama administration for a $400 million payment to Iran in January after Tehran released American prisoners, anti-abortion measures and, once again, proposals to repeal Obama’s landmark healthcare law.

Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former aide to Republican leaders in Congress, acknowledged that public opinion polling is trending in Clinton’s direction.

If Clinton wins, Bonjean added, “The whole mindset (among Republican leaders in Congress) would shift to taking care of the most important business to help Republicans and unloading the more difficult, tense issues for a Clinton administration to deal with.”

Clinton has maintained a lead in most polls since Republican and Democratic conventions, but some surveys showed that lead narrowing. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Sept. 2 showed Trump effectively pulling even with the Democratic nominee.

Yet one veteran Republican congressional aide said more and more Republicans in Congress brace for the White House to stay in Democratic hands for the next four years, even if their party manages to maintain control of Congress.

Trump’s trouble in appealing to important groups of voters, such as Hispanics, African-Americans and Asians, and self-inflicted wounds “have made it pretty clear he’s highly unlikely to get there,” he said.

Leaving the Supreme Court nomination and other high-profile disagreements for 2017 “does bog down” a new administration, “no question about it,” the aide said.

Some election years mean a slow autumn in Congress, but this is not always the case. In 2012 for example, lawmakers dramatically labored all the way through New Year’s Eve addressing a “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax and spending laws.

Not all of the delays in passing legislation are purely on Republican shoulders though.

While Trump has blasted free-trade deals, leading Democrats, including Clinton, also have criticized Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership pact that would create a free-trade zone ranging from Japan to Chile.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, downplayed the challenges Clinton might face early on. “She knows how to deal with Congress. She’s been there,” he said referring to Clinton’s years as a senator representing New York.

Besides, he added, if Trump loses, Republicans will be busy dealing with their own problems.

“They’ll have to think seriously about how they got themselves in the trouble that they’re in.”

(Reporting By Richard Cowan; Editing by Julia Edwards and Tomasz Janowski)

Photo: Former Republican presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) talks to reporters as he arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 6, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

FDA Recommends Zika Testing For All Blood Donated In U.S.

By Julie Steenhuysen and Letitia Stein

CHICAGO/TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended on Friday that all blood donated in the United States and its territories be tested for Zika virus, as it moves to prevent transmission of the virus through the blood supply.

The agency said its decision to expand blood screening in the United States was based on concerns about more cases of local transmission in Florida, the growing number of travel-related infections and concerns that Zika-tainted blood could unwittingly be given to a pregnant woman, putting her unborn baby at risk of severe birth defects.

“The transfusion of a pregnant woman with blood infected with the Zika virus could have terrible consequences,” Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said during a conference call with reporters.

The current Zika outbreak was first detected in Brazil last year and has since spread across the Americas. In Brazil, Zika has been linked to more than 1,800 cases of microcephaly, and U.S. officials expect as many as 270 cases in Puerto Rico, where local transmission of the virus is widespread.

“Over 8,000 travel associated and over 2,000 non-travel associated cases of Zika have been reported in the United States and U.S. territories,” Marks told reporters.

Given frequency of travel of individuals within the United States, he said there was a risk that people without symptoms of Zika could donate blood and transmit the virus.

Testing of donated blood is underway in Florida, Puerto Rico, as well as in other areas of the United States, and has been proven helpful in finding infected donations.

“About 1 percent of donations in Puerto Rico have tested positive for Zika virus,” Marks said.

Such testing also helped spot one unit of Zika-tainted blood in the past few weeks. Marks said testing discovered the infected blood before it reached any patients.

FDA TO ROLL OUT TESTING IN STAGES

The Food and Drug Administration plans to roll out its recommendations in stages. In states and territories with local, mosquito-borne transmission, the recommendations will go into effect immediately. This affects Florida and Puerto Rico.

In 11 states near areas with local transmission or high rates of travel-related infections, the guidelines must be implemented within four weeks. These states include Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina and Texas.

For the rest of country, the guidelines must be implemented within 12 weeks.

Marks said Hologic Inc and Roche Molecular Systems had been granted special approval for their tests to be used to screen the blood supply.

Marks said the FDA had already reviewed data submitted by the companies and was confident these investigational tests would “perform appropriately” in this setting.

In addition to tests to check whole blood for Zika RNA, the agency said blood collection centers were permitted to use Cerus Corp’s Intercept pathogen inactivation system in certain blood products, such as plasma.

America’s Blood Centers, a network of 63 blood centers with 600 donation sites in 45 U.S. states, is currently testing for Zika primarily in Florida, where local transmission has been reported. It also has centers testing in areas of Texas that are considered at high risk for the spread of the virus, and an affiliate in Arizona testing high-risk donors.

Dr. Louis Katz, chief medical officer for America’s Blood Centers, said it would take a “titanic” effort to implement testing in the first-tier states expected to be online in four weeks, but stressed the organization’s commitment to a safe blood supply.

“Testing labs and the test vendors are working feverishly to allow testing to start on time in the areas subject to the 12-week timeline,” he said in an email. “My conversations with the vendors suggest that if all goes smoothly that goal is feasible. Then, whether things go smoothly in an incredibly complex set of processes becomes critical.”

In March, the FDA granted Roche approval for a clinical trial testing its Zika blood screening test in Puerto Rico, where local blood donations had been halted and blood had to be imported from the continental United States.

The company said its second phase of deployment would be to prepare for blood donations in the southern United States.

OneBlood, a part of America’s Blood Centers network whose coverage area includes most of Florida and smaller parts of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, has been testing all collections for close to a month as part of the Roche trial, said Dr. Rita Reik, chief medical officer.

“We aren’t surprised, nor do we disagree, with the FDA guidance that just came out,” Reik said in a telephone interview.

The American Red Cross has been conducting blood tests for Zika as part of a clinical trial of a Zika blood screening test made by Hologic and Grifols the FDA approved in June.

The trial involved five southeastern states believed to be at greatest risk for local Zikatransmission. Over the next two weeks, the Red Cross said it will expand this testing to four additional states in the south central and southwestern United States.

Hologic said in an emailed statement that the company has been ramping up for months and is confident it can meet the added demand from the FDA’s guidance.

Shares of Hologic closed up 1 percent at $38.80 on Nasdaq.

BLOOD TRANSFUSION RISK “IS REALLY LOW”

Dr. Alyssa Ziman, medical director of the clinical laboratories and transfusion medicine at the University of California Los Angeles, said the new recommendations for Zika follow the similar steps the FDA took to protect the blood supply from the West Nile virus.

In that case, the FDA also had to rush out an unapproved test to detect the West Nile virus in the blood supply, Ziman said. Such tests are now approved.

“We are gathering data on the performance of the test while the test is in a sense being required by the FDA,” she said.

Because the products are investigational, UCLA will need special permission from an independent ethics committee known as an Institutional Review Board, then each patient will need to sign a special consent form before receiving a transfusion.

Ziman said with the testing on top of the questioning already being done about people’s travel histories to places where Zika is being spread, she believes the risk of getting Zikathrough a blood transfusion “is really low.”

She said people who need a blood transfusion need to balance the risk of not getting transfused against their perceived risk of contracting Zika.

Vijay Kumar, an analyst for Evercor ISI, estimates that the FDA’s recommendation forZika universal testing “will add at least $30 million to revenues, which are likely to be split between Roche and Hologic.”

(This version of the story has been refiled to add comments from blood collection companies, background on clinical trials, comment from doctor on potential risk)

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Sruthi Shankar in Bangalore; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Bernard Orr)

Photo: Test tubes with blood samples from patients who have been tested for Zika are seen at the maternity ward of the Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa, Honduras April 15, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera 

Zika Concern Leading Constituents To Push GOP Action

Concerns over the Zika virus are leading constituents in affected areas to push their Republican members of Congress for action. This is not the firs22t time there have been significant calls for action on Zika, but this past summer, Congressional Republicans left for a seven week recess without doing anything to address the growing crisis.

Now, amid calls for action from residents in hard-hit states like Florida, momentum may be building to force action.

Earlier this year, the White House asked for $1.9 billion in funding to fight the virus. House Republicans politicized the issue, arguing that the White House still had money left over from the fight against Ebola. Shortly thereafter, Senate Republicans offered $1.1 billion, which the White House accepted, but was then blocked by Senate Democrats. The bill offered by Republicans did not provide funding for family planning, as Zika is a virus that can be transmitted sexually, and even had provisions to defund parts of Obamacare. It also would have reversed a federal ban on displaying Confederate flags in national cemeteries.

Ultimately, the summer Congressional recess started with no action on Zika; both sides blamed each other.

Now, however, Politico reports House Republicans are catching heat for refusing action on Zika funding initially. Floridians Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Carlos Curbelo are among those Republicans pushing their party for action. Ros-Lehtinen asked Speaker Paul Ryan to convene an emergency session to pass a bill on Zika funds. Rep. Dennis Ross is among those Republicans hoping the GOP decides to fully fund President Obama’s request for $1.9 billion in Zika funding.

Democrats, for their part, are seemingly attempting to use the heat against Republicans to push for even more. In a phone call with reporters Thursday, Rep. Gwen Graham said, according to Politico, “Florida is ground zero for Zika in the U.S. and it’s time for Marco Rubio, Rick Scott and Congressional Republicans to quit playing politics and protect our state.”

Media within the state are also placing the blame squarely at the GOP’s feet.

Zika’s reach has grown over the summer months, with the first native cases in Florida multiplying through July. Now, there are over 400 cases in Florida, including in populous Miami.

Curbelo told Politico that his office has been flooded by calls from physicians who are trying to manage Zika fears from their patients. “There is so much anger and frustration in our country because most Americans feel they cannot count on the government to do very simple things… Congress has to show competence — and funding a response to a serious public health threat seems to me a very simple stand for ‘competence,'” he said.

Photo: An edes aegypti mosquito is seen inside a test tube as part of a research on preventing the spread of the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases at a control and prevention center in Guadalupe, neighbouring Monterrey, Mexico, in this March 8, 2016 file photo. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril/Files