Congress Rejects Zika Funding, Again, But Hopes of Compromise Aren't Dead

by | September 7, 2016

By Lindsay Wise

Back from a seven-week break, the U.S. Senate failed for the third time Tuesday to pass a bill that would provide funding for Zika research and prevention.

Democrats, who also blocked the legislation in June and July, opposed it again over concerns about budget cuts in the bill, as well as language that would disqualify Planned Parenthood from receiving grant money to combat Zika in Puerto Rico, where the virus is widespread. Democrats also objected to a provision that would have loosened environmental regulations temporarily on pesticides.

There was little doubt about the outcome of the Senate vote, even before the 5:30 p.m. roll call. The bill needed at least 60 votes to overcome a key procedural hurdle. It fell short, 52-46.

But the bill's failure Tuesday might clear the way for a compromise.

Lawmakers and congressional staff who have been working behind the scenes to reach a deal on Zika already have shifted their focus to making sure that money for the Zika fight makes it into any budget deal or continuing resolution that Congress must pass to avert a government shutdown at the end of September.

Although continuing resolutions by definition maintain current funding levels, lawmakers could add emergency funds for natural disasters like the floods in Louisiana or wildfires in the West, as well as for Zika.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running for re-election in Florida, sent a letter Tuesday to House of Representatives and Senate Republicans and Democrats on the appropriations committees, as well as members of the House and Senate leadership, urging them to include Zika funding in any government funding bill they put together.

He made the same plea in a speech on the Senate floor after the vote Tuesday.

"Congress needs to act and it needs to act now," he said.

Rubio said in an interview that he'd had conversations with Republican leaders in the House, explaining to them that he thought a clean bill without the controversial language restricting the use of grant money for Planned Parenthood probably was the only way forward.

He said a number of his GOP House colleagues had been echoing the same message to their leadership.

"I think that's pretty clear that the Senate Democrats are not going to go for it with that language (affecting Planned Parenthood) in it," Rubio said. "We just need to get this funded, at this point ... . Hopefully we can prevail on our House colleagues."

He said he was cautiously optimistic that a deal could be reached.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican involved in the Zika talks who also is seeking re-election, said in an interview before the vote that lawmakers might find it easier to vote for Zika money as part of a continuing resolution rather than as a separate bill.

It could change the political calculation for members who rejected the Zika bill as flawed but want to keep the government open, Blunt said.

"An imperfect thing added to a (continuing resolution) might not be as hard a thing to vote for as an imperfect thing that's a standalone," he said.

Whatever package does pass probably won't include the controversial language that made Planned Parenthood ineligible for new block grant funds in Puerto Rico, Blunt said.

"For this to get done, that language just may have to go away," he said. "But both sides will declare some level of victory and there's probably other places where that money would be better spent right now anyway, based on where we are at this moment with vaccines as well as tests."

Blunt added that House Republicans likely will insist that Democrats agree to some level of budget cuts to offset the costs of fighting Zika.

"Everybody's trying to work to get this done, and I believe we will," he said.

The recent discovery of Zika-infected mosquitoes in Miami intensifies pressure on Congress, which left Washington in July for a seven-week break without allocating money to halt the spread of the virus.

Democrats and Republicans were tantalizingly close to a deal on Zika months ago, when it all fell apart in the final 48 hours, according to interviews with a half-dozen senior congressional staffers involved in the talks.

In the end, talks stalled on three principal sticking points, the staffers said.

First, Democrats were adamant that they would not agree to cut funds elsewhere in the budget to offset the costs of combating Zika.

Second, they objected to language proposed by Republicans that would make Planned Parenthood ineligible for millions of dollars in grant money flowing to Puerto Rico, where Zika cases are skyrocketing.

And third, Democrats opposed a provision that would loosen environmental regulations for pesticides for 180 days in an effort to control the spread of mosquitoes.

Had Democrats been willing to budge on cuts, or had Republicans accepted counteroffers that Democrats made on the Planned Parenthood and Environmental Protection Agency language, there might have been a breakthrough.

Instead, Republicans decided to file a bill without any Democratic buy-in on June 22. In theory, the House had two more working days on the calendar, but Democrats had taken over the floor that day for a sit-in to protest the lack of votes on gun control, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., in a rush to adjourn, brought the bill to a vote at 3:11 the next morning.

Ryan then adjourned the House.

Outraged Senate Democrats vowed to block the bill. They said Republicans had not filed it with an eye to passage. It was put together, they said, to force the Democrats to own the "no" vote, or at least for Republicans to be able to go into recess saying they'd voted for Zika aid but Democrats were blocking it.

Senators from both parties blamed each other for the gridlock Tuesday, accusing their colleagues of playing politics with Zika as they made their way off the floor after voting.

"This is a little ridiculous," said Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas.

"Let's quit playing games with this," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida vented his frustration after the vote by joking that he would have to take a shipment of Zika-infected mosquitoes from Florida to Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and release them.

"Maybe that would change things," he said.

"The person who can deliver a Zika funding bill is Mitch McConnell," Nelson said. "We already passed it in the Senate, clean, without the political riders ... . If McConnell would insist that the House not put the political riders in it, we'd have it done."

Nelson said he'd be willing to consider some budget cuts to pay for a Zika funding package, depending on those cuts.

"I don't care about political machinations or how we get it done," he said. "I just want to get it done."

(c)2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau