Senate Republicans plan to approve at least $1.1 billion to combat the Zika virus in the next week or so, amid intensifying pressure to combat the spread of the mosquito-borne illness.
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republican who chairs the spending subcommittee that oversees health funding, said he wants to add $1.1 billion in emergency funding to a package of spending bills coming to the Senate floor this week. That figure falls short of the White House’s request for $1.9 billion to combat the virus, which is believed to cause serious birth defects. It could also trigger a fight with House Republicans, who are demanding offsetting spending cuts.
Blunt said his move has bipartisan support, including from Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on Blunt’s panel. “Patty Murray and I are prepared to offer our Zika amendment when we get on the bill,” Blunt said Wednesday.
The amendment could get a vote on the Senate floor as soon as Thursday, when the chamber turns to a pair of spending bills that fund transportation, housing and veterans programs. The vote could also slip into next week.
Democrats were holding up final passage of a separate spending bill for energy and water programs while Minority Leader Harry Reid negotiated on Democrats’ bid for an additional vote on $1.9 billion in Zika funding, according to leadership aides in both parties who asked not to be identified.
The action comes after months of White House criticism of Congress for not responding faster to its spending request, which was issued in February, and as more Zika cases are reported ahead of mosquito season, particularly in the South.
“I hope nobody would stop it,” said Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, a Republican running for re-election, in an interview earlier this week. “Zika is a big potential threat and I don’t think a lot of people have focused on that yet. We need to be doing everything we can to be ready for it.”
There are major political implications, since Florida could become ground zero for the Zika virus on the mainland and is a key battleground in the fight for the White House and control of the Senate.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has been the most vocal Republican advocate of Zika funding in the Senate, particularly since he returned to the chamber after his failed presidential bid. He has been excoriating his colleagues for going home two weeks ago without approving Zika spending.
“It is just a matter of days, weeks, hours before you will open up a newspaper or turn on the news and it will say that someone in the continental United States was bitten by a mosquito and they contracted Zika,” Rubio said before lawmakers left for their break. “When that happens, then everyone is going to be freaked out.”
Rubio urged senators not to wait.
“I want to know what people are going to say when they are asked: What did you do about it?”
Pushing for More
Democrats and the White House, meanwhile, aren’t satisfied with the $1.1 billion offered by Blunt — but that might be all they can get.
Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said Democrats want the full $1.9 billion. “If they are interested in the public health and safety of their constituents and protecting the unborn, they’re for it,” she said.
The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, also said Democrats were trying to get Republicans to back more than $1.1 billion on the floor.
One possibility would be for Democrats to offer up an amendment with the full $1.9 billion and see if it has 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles, according to one senior Democratic aide. Republican conservatives, who want to include offsetting spending cuts to avoid increasing the deficit, could also demand a vote of their own.
House Republicans, meanwhile, said they also hope to move quickly.
Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee for military construction and veterans affairs, said Zika funding has a good chance of being attached to his spending bill on the floor next week.
“I suspect in the House there will be pay-fors,” he said, referring to offsetting spending cuts. That will face objections from Democrats and the White House, who don’t want to cut other spending.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky told reporters Tuesday that members of his panel were “getting close” to identifying the amount needed for a Zika supplemental and that he hopes the House acts this month on the matter.
Mario Diaz-Balart, a senior Republican appropriator from Florida, said in an interview he would be raising a ruckus if the House were not going to act.
“We are going to do something,” he said. “I’m confident we are going to get it done.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, meanwhile, kept up the administration’s call for full funding, saying Congress should have acted at least a month or two ago. He called the delays “unconscionable.”
Earnest said the administration wants full funding so the government can restore money that was diverted from fighting the Ebola virus as Congress stalled.
“We’ve taken as much money as we possibly can without gutting the Ebola program,” he said. “We need Ebola to be properly funded as well.”