Standoff in GOP over Zika funding

The House and Senate are at odds over funding to deal with the Zika virus.

Republicans in both chambers are moving forward with funding bills after months of Democratic pressure, but their proposals differ sharply.

{mosads}In the Senate, Republicans worked with Democrats to craft a bill with $1.1 billion in new funding to fight the virus, which is borne by mosquitoes and can cause birth defects. That measure advanced in the Senate on Tuesday by a vote of 68-29.

But the House is on a different page, with Republicans on Monday unveiling Zika legislation with $622 million in funding — below the Senate’s level and far less than the $1.9 billion sought by the White House.

In addition, the cost of the House bill is offset partly by redirecting existing money that had been planned for the response to the Ebola virus. 

Democrats denounced the House bill on Tuesday, bolstered by a veto threat from the White House. But the Democrats largely held their fire on the Senate’s compromise measure, even as House conservatives warned it was unacceptable. 

“There’s a big gulf between where the Senate is and where the House is on this,” said conservative Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.).

“I think it becomes much for problematic for some of us to vote for a conference report that goes in the Senate direction rather than the House direction,” Sanford added, referring to a possible measure that would be worked out between the two chambers. 

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said the costs of any Zika bill must be offset. 

“It needs to be paid for, and you know viruses do what viruses do,” he said. “I’m a veterinarian. We dealt with viruses all the time, whether it was rabies or some other virus. We don’t need legislators driving it, we need the scientific community driving it.”

Scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of infectious disease research at the National Institutes of Health, say they need substantial new funding from Congress for vaccine research and other priorities.

Some Republican senators are taking out their frustration on their House colleagues for resisting the bipartisan deal they struck with Democrats.

“I’m concerned about what I hear coming from the House,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whose home state is expected to be hit hard by Zika and has broken with his party to back the full White House request. “Their funding measure isn’t even $1.1 billion. It’s $622 million. Quite frankly, that’s just not going to cut it.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added, “I hope we can get the House on board” with the compromise. 

But the House is defending its approach.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the top appropriator on healthcare, said it is important that the House bill is offset. 

“We’re the only people that are making it a priority enough to pay for it,” he said.

“We’ve got, I think, the superior approach here, because it gets the resources where they need to go, and it’s paid for, and that’s the real debate here.”

Heritage Action, the influential conservative outside group, has pushed for any action on Zika to be paid for. 

But finding offsets in the budget that would be acceptable to both parties is a difficult task. 

Lawmakers said they expected there would eventually be a conference committee to try to find a way to work out the differences between the two chambers’ measures.

Democrats are also calling for Zika funding to be a stand-alone bill. The Senate is now attaching it to a broader spending bill that could take months to complete.

Supporters of Zika funding say it is progress that the House is discussing action at all.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said in March that the administration already had “plenty of money” to fight the virus. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) added in April that funding should be dealt with through the regular appropriations process, meaning it would not be available until Oct. 1.

Republicans have argued they need time to get answers from the administration and examine its request. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), for example, said that White House had initially sought funding for buildings that should not have been part of an emergency request because they would not have been completed in time.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who negotiated the Senate deal with Blunt, pointed to “months of pressure from Democrats” as getting Republicans to move.

Senate Democrats, including their leader, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), had objected to the $1.1 billion figure as too small, but ultimately supported it, saying it was better than nothing.

House Democrats, likewise, appeared open to accepting $1.1 billion. 

“We still prefer the $1.9 billion, [but] the Senate bill, we think, as probably being preferable to the House bill, and we’ll see how that goes as we go forward,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House’s No. 2 Democrat, said Tuesday.

Asked how the gap with the Senate would be bridged, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said: “That’s a bridge too far at this point, we’ll discuss the bill with them in due course of time.”

— Sarah Ferris and Mike Lillis contributed.

Tags Harry Reid Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Patty Murray Paul Ryan Roy Blunt Ted Yoho

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