Congress Does It Again – Plays the Blame Game Over Funding to Prevent Zika
Policy + Politics

Congress Does It Again – Plays the Blame Game Over Funding to Prevent Zika

© Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

Congress is within days of departing for a nearly eight-week summer recess with the Senate still angrily deadlocked over a $1.1 billion spending bill to help prevent the spread of the dreaded Zika virus.

The House and Senate are scheduled to adjourn by Friday so that members can attend the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and then depart for the month of August for their annual summer recess. This all comes six months after President Obama and U.S. public health officials first urged lawmakers to respond to the mounting crisis.

Related: The Senate Dithers Again as Zika Virus Continues to Spread

Absent some last minute turnabout, the Senate will put off approval of Zika funding until lawmakers return to work in September, according to The Hill.

The Zika virus is spread globally by mosquitos or sexual contact and is especially dangerous for pregnant women, who run the risk of giving birth to infants with a dreadful head-deforming disease known as microcephaly. Although the epicenter of the global threat has been Brazil and parts of Latin America, 1,133 people in the U.S. have been infected by the disease during travels outside of the country, including 320 pregnant women.

 In Florida alone, there have been 263 cases of people being infected by the Zika virus since January, including 43 pregnant women. There has been at least one reported death in Puerto Rico related to the virus. And last Friday, U.S. health officials confirmed the first Zika-related death in the continental Unites States.

The victim was an elderly resident of Utah who suffering from an underlying medical condition contracted the virus while traveling to a Zika-affected region earlier this year, according to The Washington Post. Public health experts are warning that as the summer heats up, Zika-bearing mosquitoes will populate and accelerate the spread of the virus that also can trigger the paralyzing Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults.

Related: U.S. lawmakers deadlock on Zika virus funds

In short, the problem is likely to get a lot worse in this country while lawmakers are partying at the Republican and Democratic national conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia over the next two weeks and while vacationing or campaigning throughout the long month of August.

While it once was unthinkable that lawmakers would abrogate their responsibilities for protecting the health of millions of Americans, now all-too-familiar partisan disputes over spending levels and extraneous issues including abortion have once again crippled Congress’s ability to respond to a crisis expeditiously.

Both sides are accusing the other of political gamesmanship and recklessness heading into the long recess. Democrats say they’re outraged by language the Republican leadership slipped into the major spending bill that would block funds for Planned Parenthood and weaken Clean Water Act regulations. Republicans say the Democrats will bear sole responsibility for continued inaction on Zika unless they vote for the bill on the Senate floor this week.

“They have been struggling with this since early this year when it first became apparent that Zika was going to be a problem,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political professor and expert on Congress. “And it just seems it comes down to a lot of very trivial kinds of disputes…. I think that the level of disagreement is such that even something that seems to be pressing and urgent gets kicked down the road.”

Related: Congress Is Taking an $18 Billion Gamble With the Pentagon’s War Fund

“It’s symptomatic of a Congress that is simply unable to do anything important,” he added.

The controversy dates back to late February, when the White House requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to combat the spread of Zika, with much of it going to the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development,

In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Obama broadly outlined plans for those agencies to respond to the Zika virus threat “both domestically and internationally,” and to build upon “ongoing preparedness efforts.”

It took three months for Republican lawmakers to respond. When they did, there were complaints that the administration had been too vague in describing its proposals and that it was going too far afield in committing to spending outside the continental U.S.

“For months, House Republicans have been calling on the White House and Administration officials to provide specific information regarding funding proposed to fight the Zika outbreak, and for federal agencies to use all existing resources at their disposal to address the spread of the disease,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) said in a statement.

Related: Why Is Congress Ignoring Our $18.4 Trillion National Debt?

Rogers initially offered just $622 million for anti-Zika programs and said the money had to be spent by September 30, the end of the current fiscal year, with more coming later if Congress agreed to it. But there was no new money attached to the program -- only $352 million that Rogers proposed shifting from existing Ebola control programs and the remainder coming from unspent Department of Health and Human Services funds. 

The Administration fared better in the Senate, where Florida’s two senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson,  not only strongly embraced Obama’s $1.9 billion proposal but sweetened it with an additional $144 million for research to develop a vaccine to prevent Zika infections from spreading, according to an analysis by  Science Magazine. Florida was becoming ground zero for the spread of the Zika virus, and the two senators apparently were determined to get as much funding as possible.

GOP leaders on Capitol Hill refused to go along with such a pricey bipartisan plan, but they appeared inclined to spend more than Rogers’s original proposal in the House.

Ultimately, Senate and House GOP leaders struck a $1.1 billion compromise conference report that essentially “split the differences between earlier House and Senate-passed versions,” according to the Associated Press. The House was content to go along with this, particularly because the spending bill would be accompanied by about $750 in offsetting cuts, including $543 million of unused funds from launching Obamacare and $107 million of unspent Ebola funding.

Related: McConnell Vows to Avoid Another Debt Ceiling Crisis

But Republicans decided to load up the bill with “poison pills” unacceptable to the Democrats and the president. Democrats in both chambers voiced outrage over the final version. Those controversial amendments included provisions that prevented Planned Parenthood from delivering birth control services under a $95 million federal grant program, and a provision favored by the House that would ease rules on certain pesticide permits used to combat the spread of Zika.

House Republicans rammed through the legislation June 22, the same day the Democrats were staging a sit-in on the House floor demanding action on gun control. Senate GOP leaders attempted to follow suit shortly before the July 4 recess, but ran into a furious Democratic blockade. On the key vote, 52 to 48, Republicans fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster and pass the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) denounced the Democrats at the time for playing “partisan politics” with a vital public health spending issue, while Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) fired back that “the conference report is nothing more than a goody bag for the fringes of the Republican Party.”

On Monday, the bitter feuding continued on the Senate floor:

"He's proposing a completely partisan conference report ridden with poison pill riders, one of the worst conference reports I've seen this body," Reid said of McConnell.

 McConnell insisted that the conference report is the Senate’s only option if Democrats are serious about passing legislation before the fall.  

"Either Democrats believe Zika is a crisis that requires immediate action or they don't," McConnell said, according to The Hill. "Either Democrats think protecting pregnant women and babies from Zika today is more important or they think holding out for an earmark for their favorite partisan special interest group is more important." 

Bill Hoagland, vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former Senate Republican budget adviser, said in an interview yesterday that “I’ve been told there’s just no way that the Republicans will back off, nor is there any way the Democrats will back off.”

“So it’s an embarrassment, particularly going into a lengthy recess and of course the election is coming up,” he added. “What can I say? It’s just another black mark on getting stuff done that really should be done.”