A Deadlocked Senate Once Again Fails to Agree on Zika Funding
Policy + Politics

A Deadlocked Senate Once Again Fails to Agree on Zika Funding

© Mariana Bazo / Reuters

Congress returned from a seven-week vacation on Tuesday and found itself pretty much in the same outrageous spending deadlock it left behind in mid-July.

For the third time this summer, Senate Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on new $1.1 billion in funding to combat the spread of the dreaded Zika virus – a mosquito-borne and sexually transmittable disease that can cause serious birth defects if contracted by pregnant women.  

In all 50 US States, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 35 cases have been locally acquired, while 2,686 people acquired Zika while traveling outside the country. Zika in US Territories (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands) includes 14,059 locally acquired cases and 51 travel-associated cases.

Related: Funding to Stop the Spread of Zika Tops Congress’s Agenda

Lawmakers departed Washington in mid-July unable to resolve a dispute over a number of controversial GOP amendments to the funding bill, including one to deny federal funding to a Planned Parenthood program in Puerto Rico and another to curb Obama administration clean water regulations.

Instead of having worked out a deal behind the scenes during the extraordinarily lengthy summer recess, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada returned to work yesterday afternoon and immediately began blaming one another again for putting the health of Americans at risk.

“It’s outrageous,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, “especially considering that some of the issues around Zika are direr than they were before….  You figure that at this time you should be trying to figure out a way forward, rather than to say, ‘Our last offer is our best offer.’”

The Senate voted yesterday 52 to 46 to cut off the Democratic filibuster and move ahead with a House-passed conference report to provide added funding for combatting the spread of Zika by researching a vaccine to prevent the disease. But Republicans fell eight votes shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to end the Democrats’ filibuster, and so the impasse remains.

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

There is little doubt that Congress will eventually approve more spending for Zika seven months after President Obama first submitted a request closer to $1.9 billion. Lawmakers have no choice but to complete work on legislation before departing again for another four weeks of campaigning before the Nov. 8 election.

If  Republicans and Democrats are willing to risk the wrath of voters to score political points on Zika funding, then they might be willing to risk another government shutdown to have their way on a continuing resolution (CR) to provide operating funds to start the new fiscal year October 1. The last time Congress forced a government shutdown was in October 2013 when negotiations over major spending bills for the coming fiscal year collapsed.

The stakes couldn’t be higher this fall, as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton battle to succeed President Obama while the Democrats seek to regain control of the Senate and cut deeply into GOP control of the House. Both parties are aggressively seeking ways to enhance their prospects, and one of the most obvious strategies is tacking policy positions on major appropriations legislation.

“Obviously what happens at the beginning of September could be very different from what happens at the end of September,” said Stan Collender, a Washington budget expert. “But whether it’s Zika or [Vice President Joe Biden’s] ‘moon shot’ cancer research funding or a defense spending cap, it shows that electoral politics have already taken over the budget process for this.”

“So the decisions that are yet to be made on the CR are going to be as much about the election as they are about funding,” he added. “And it’s one of the reasons that you cannot dismiss the possibility that there is no compromise and that we get at least a short-term shutdown.”

Related: Disease Target No 1: Stop Zika Before It Spreads Beyond Florida

As in years past, the House and Senate are far behind in approving the dozen annual appropriations bills essential to operating the government. In fact, while each chamber as approved a handful of spending bills, the House and Senate have yet to agree on a compromise version of a single spending bill. With the deadline for action once again looming, lawmakers are sharply divided on how to proceed.

Should they approve a stop-gap spending bill to get past the election and then complete their work in a lame-duck session before the end of the year? Many Democrats and some Republicans are for that approach. Or should they push the temporary spending authority well into 2017 to allow a new Congress and a new president make the final funding decisions?

Many of the 40 members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus favor that second approach, insisting that it would prevent Democrats and more moderate Republican appropriators from pressing for extra spending and concessions to special interest groups just ahead of the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.

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House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) will have his hands full trying to hold the Freedom Caucus in line. Many House conservatives are refusing to compromise with the Democrats on Zika funding or the larger spending bills or continuing resolution to keep the government afloat. Many of them are also threatening to disrupt the House by pressing for a floor vote on whether to impeach Internal Revenue Commissioner John Koskinen in connection with his handling of the aftermath of an IRS scandal.

The conservatives’ demand for a highly unusual and divisive impeachment vote is putting Ryan and more moderate Republicans on the spot as their party heads into what could be a very difficult election for them.  But for now, the most immediate problem for the two parties is finding a way out of the Zika funding morass.

McConnell and Reid wasted little time Tuesday afternoon in blaming each other for the long delay in action on Zika and politicizing other spending issues, including defense, transportation and veteran’s affairs that are also tied up in the Zika funding controversy.

“Our colleagues across the aisle can point to a series of partisan excuses, but the bottom line is this: there is no good explanation for blocking these public health and national security funding bills,” McConnell said.

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Reid fired back that “I’m still stunned that the Republican leader decided to have a seven-week vacation, and it was more important to him than funding our nation’s Zika response, on giving Judge Merrick Garland a hearing [on his Supreme Court nomination] or preventing terrorists or criminals from buying guns.”

 “The Senate has a mountain of work to do and no time to do it,” Reid said. “First and foremost, the Senate needs to fund efforts to combat Zika. It’s a threat that’s sweeping this country.”