Congressional dysfunction likely to stall Zika funding bill
President Barack Obama's $1.9 billion emergency request to combat a potential public health crisis from the Zika virus is more than 4 months old, but congressional dysfunction appears likely to scuttle a scaled-back version of the president's request, raising the prospect that Congress may leave on a seven-week vacation next month without addressing Zika.
Senate Democrats say they will block a $1.1 billion Republican-drafted measure to combat the virus, arguing that it contains unfair spending cuts and limits which groups can deliver health care and provide contraception to women in Zika-infested Puerto Rico. The vote is Tuesday.
The measure is an agreement between House and Senate Republicans who say they drafted it in hopes of finding a compromise that could somehow satisfy both tea party Republicans and Obama's Democratic allies in the Senate. It did nothing of the sort. The House passed the measure along party lines last week. Senate Democrats immediately opposed it, especially over a provision drafted to block Planned Parenthood — a frequent GOP target — from being eligible for $95 million in social services grants.
The White House has threatened to veto the legislation, though it's unlikely to reach Obama's desk.
Zika can cause horrible birth defects and is spread by mosquitoes and through sexual contact. Health professionals fear that clusters of Zika cases will arise now that mosquito season has arrived.
A snapshot on where the Zika issue stands on Capitol Hill:
WHAT WOULD THE ZIKA BILL DO?
The $1.1 billion is aimed at fighting the mosquitoes that can spread Zika, producing better tests to detect the virus, invent a vaccine and help countries with high concentrations of Zika to battle it. It comes on top of more than $500 million that the administration rerouted from unspent funds from the recent Ebola scare. The $1.1 billion measure, when added to the redirected Ebola money, pretty much tracks the administration's request.
SO WHY ARE DEMOCRATS OPPOSED?
Democrats argue that Republicans used the bill to push their ideology. In addition to the limits on Planned Parenthood, the bill would lift restrictions on pesticide spraying that is opposed by environmentalists. Cut out of the negotiations, Democrats also oppose the idea of requiring spending cuts to pay for an emergency, though the bulk of the cuts in the GOP measure involve money that wouldn't be spent anyway. But some Democrats acknowledge that other items, like a cut from an account in Obama's health law that's flush with leftover money for setting up health insurance exchanges, or an additional $100 million-plus cut to overseas Ebola aid, wouldn't hurt those programs.
WHAT DO REPUBLICANS SAY?
First, they say Senate Democrats got the $1.1 billion they voted for last month. And they point out that Republicans won control of the Senate in 2014, so Democrats should accept some GOP provisions as the cost of doing business, especially if the administration says the Zika funding is so urgent. This is the best deal Democrats are going to get, said No. 2 Senate Republican John Cornyn of Texas.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
It's not at all clear. If Congress adjourns without funding Zika, each side will blame the other. But it's not clear how much political fallout there would be and who would bear the brunt of it. There will be pressure to try to resurrect the measure, but there's no reason to be confident that the two sides would be able to cast aside their hard feelings and get a new compromise passed before Congress exits Washington in mid-July for the political conventions and the traditional August break. The government's Zika battle would continue, but the administration says it wouldn't have all the tools it needs.
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