GOP mired in Zika dispute

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The House and Senate have both passed funding to combat the Zika virus, but there appears to be little chance Republicans will reach a deal before the Memorial Day recess.

The bills passed by the House and Senate last week are vastly different in terms of size, timeline and offsets. One is broadly bipartisan; the other is facing a veto threat from the White House.

{mosads}So far, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have said little about how they plan to move forward.

“We’ve now begun discussions on how best to resolve the differences between House and Senate versions and get a bill to the president,” McConnell said from the Senate floor Monday evening.

The task of merging the bills would be difficult even on a slow legislative week. But with the House and Senate this week trying to muscle through massive energy appropriation and defense authorization bills, respectively, it appears the effort will slip into June.

Pressure for action is mounting. With spring turning to summer, mosquitoes will be hatching at a rapid rate, likely accelerating the spread of Zika. Nearly 300 pregnant women in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the virus already, putting their babies at risk of severe birth defects.

President Obama chided Republicans on Friday, saying they should not leave town for their weeklong Memorial Day holiday until Zika funding is approved.

Public health advocates are also getting anxious. One health group involved in the funding fight said some in Congress have discussed a deadline of the July 4 recess for action, which it said would be far too late.

Republicans will likely end up approving more money than the $622 million, six-month spending package approved by the House. The question is how much more and whether it would all be paid for.

Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), a rare Republican who supports the White House’s funding request, said he plans to press the Zika issue with leadership as soon as the House returns on Monday evening.   

“I’m going to be pushing them aggressively this week. We need quick action, and we need the dollars,” he said in an interview Monday. He said he’s hopeful that the House GOP will ultimately approve funding levels “much closer” to the $1.9 billion he’s advocated.

One approach that could help end the standoff, according to several lawmakers, would involve dipping deeper into the leftover funding from the Ebola crisis.

A federal report last September found the administration had about $1.4 billion left of the $5.4 billion that was approved by Congress in 2014 in its largest-ever emergency funding bill. Another report from the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation said it could only account for about $1.9 billion spent. 

Republicans have been arguing for months that the White House should shift money from Ebola to a separate Zika response. So far, the administration has agreed to move about $600 million, vowing not to bend any further.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) on Monday said he would be open to a larger package if the costs were covered from other funding areas. He said he believes the White House overestimated its initial Ebola request, giving the GOP “some latitude” in approving funds for Zika.

“Even if we need to increase the amount of money to make our Senate colleagues happy during a conference, let’s just use the offsets from some of the previously funded Ebola efforts,” Meadows said.

“I do think that we can find some common ground, even if the numbers are different. There’s not a huge canyon between the House and the Senate at this point. Most of it just has to do with offsets,” he added.

The White House has rejected any approach that would remove funding from its global Ebola virus response. But lawmakers say they don’t believe Obama would reject such a bill if it were his only option.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest has warned against shrinking the Ebola funding pool, which he said would put countries still battling the deadly disease, like Guinea and Liberia, at risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently has about 100 people in those countries helping to monitor more than 1,000 people exposed to the virus, he said. 

With the exception of a handful of Florida Republicans, the GOP is generally skeptical of the White House’s nearly $2 billion funding request. The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn (Texas), recently blasted that figure as a “blank check” for the president.

In the House, fiscal hawks say they’d refuse to support any bill that would add to the deficit, even if it were emergency funding. Most would also rather take a short-term approach, keeping the pot small but allowing the White House to ask for more later.

The Senate’s version, meanwhile, offers $1.1 billion for the next two years and has support from Democrats. It is not currently paid for, making it a nonstarter for most House Republicans.

Tags John Cornyn Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan
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