Senate Republicans Preparing to Relent on Funding for Zika

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City environmental health specialist Gerardo Valdez prepares to check a mosquito trap on April 14, 2016, in McAllen, Texas.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images
  • Republicans said to be drafting $1 billion-plus package
  • White House has been intensifying push to secure funding

Senate Republicans are preparing to relent on a major portion of President Barack Obama’s emergency request to respond to the Zika virus.

Republicans are drafting a more than $1 billion emergency plan, according to a Republican familiar with the matter, which could be attached to another appropriations bill in a committee as soon as Thursday. The person expects the package to have Democratic support.

A senior Republican aide, however, said the administration’s revised request, which was issued Monday, is still being examined and no final determination has been made about what will be included and where it will move.

The White House, which has requested $1.9 billion in additional spending, has stepped up its campaign to secure the funding, warning that additional emergency efforts are needed to prevent a larger outbreak of the virus. 

"Republicans in Congress have done little to nothing to address this issue for the last two months," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. "And the opportunity to get ahead of this potentially serious situation is washing away."

House Republicans have been reluctant to approve any emergency spending, with some arguing the needs can be met by tapping unused funding for the Ebola virus and that additional money can be provided through the regular spending bill process.

Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters Tuesday "there is a sense of urgency" to act, but he blamed the White House for not answering all of the questions lawmakers have about the request.

"When we get sufficient answers to those questions, then we’ll take sufficient action," Ryan said.

Republican ‘Backlash’

A senior House appropriator said Wednesday that a decision to add $1 billion in Zika-related funding would not be well received in the House.

"If they do that, it could provoke a backlash from some Republicans who will say that they are panicking and it’s premature, you’ve got to work with the agencies," Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Health and Human Services Department, said in an interview.

"If they do that, look, we’ll deal with it," he said.

Cole said that the administration continues to have difficulty identifying what money would be spent in fiscal 2016 and what money would be spent in the next fiscal year. He said he is prepared to have a large Zika commitment in his upcoming spending bill while sticking to the overall budget cap.

USAID Request

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the U.S. Agency for International Development, separately said he would be backing that portion of the supplemental spending request from the administration as part of an overall supplemental measure "soon."

"I’m going to work with the committee to do an emergency supplemental" for USAID, Graham said. "They’ve already got some money from the Ebola account so we’re not going to pay twice, but I think we’ll meet their needs."

Graham said he supports other pieces of the Zika spending request as well, although maybe not the full amount.

"I believe it’s a real problem and I’d like to address it," he said.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor and Health and Human Services, said in an e-mailed statement, “Negotiations are continuing and I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to reach a final agreement.”

‘Ebola Script’

The movement comes as Democrats warn of political consequences for Republicans if they don’t act.

"We’re practicing their Ebola script," joked Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, noting how Republicans attacked the Obama administration for being slow to respond to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. "We’ll just change ‘Ebola’ into ‘Zika.’"

Durbin said Wednesday Democrats were considering adding emergency spending amendments for Zika, the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, and opioids to appropriations bills if Republicans open them up for other emergency spending.

Senate Democrats on Monday sent a letter urging Republicans to pass the supplemental as soon as possible.

"Congress has failed to address a disease that has infected more than 800 Americans in 40 states, Washington, D.C., and 3 U.S. territories, including 89 pregnant women," they wrote.

‘In Discussion’

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky indicated Republicans supported some spending on Zika.

"We’re in discussion with them about how much do they really need," he told reporters at his weekly press conference. "I don’t think that in the end there will be any opposition to addressing what we think is going to be a fairly significant public health crisis."

He didn’t, however, detail a timetable for action.

Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, who has urged fully funding the administration’s request, said he hopes the Senate acts before the end of April.

"I hope so. I guess cautious optimist that at least some of the money will be released, probably not the full amount. There’s growing awareness of its importance. It’s starting to interest people in other states. Those mosquitoes are present in 30 states," he said. "But like anything else, it moves at a glacial pace in the Senate."

Rubio noted that summer is fast approaching. "The summer is almost here and that’s when you’re going to see the problem potentially blossom."

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