Senate Republican leaders entered this week hoping to act quickly to fight the Zika virus, but ran into internal feuding and now face the prospect of political fallout in election battleground states like Florida.
Talks with Democrats on an emergency spending package stalled and lawmakers now anticipate doing nothing before they leave on a one-week recess at the end of the week. Republican leaders say they will bring a bill to the Senate floor at some point as they continue to negotiate on the details, but it remains unclear when and how such a measure would advance.
Republicans had been slow to address an Obama administration request in February for $1.9 billion to prevent a Zika outbreak, but evidence that the virus is spreading faster than originally feared has injected new urgency into the debate.
The White House said Tuesday that there are now 891 confirmed cases of Zika in the U.S., including 81 pregnant women, as of April 20. The disease has been linked to serious birth defects.
“To properly protect the American public, and in particular pregnant women and their newborns, Congress must fund the administration’s request of $1.9 billion and find a path forward to address this public health emergency immediately,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan and National Security Adviser Susan Rice wrote Tuesday in a letter to Republican leaders.
They urged Congress to act before the Memorial Day recess. Democrats plan to keep the pressure on. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California will join Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid at a joint press conference Wednesday afternoon to pressure Republicans to act on Zika.
The initial decision by Senate appropriators to pursue the additional funding on the Senate floor this week ran into resistance by conservatives, particularly in the House, to granting emergency spending.
Senator Roy Blunt, the top Republican appropriator on health issues, told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol he’s close to agreement with Democrats on a $1.1 billion package but is talking with the House to see what can move quickly to the president’s desk.
“I think the House is not where we are yet in terms of dealing with this issue,” the Missouri Republican said, adding he doesn’t anticipate any action before lawmakers leave town at the end of the week.
But Reid of Nevada said Tuesday that his Democrats hadn’t yet agreed to the lower $1.1 billion figure.
“There is no deal; we want $1.9 billion,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also ripped Republicans, saying administration officials have already answered lawmakers’ questions in 48 hearings about Zika.
“I don’t think their constituents are going to find it an acceptable response when there is a widespread media freakout about the Zika virus that Republicans haven’t acted because
they didn’t get their questions answered,” he said Tuesday.
For many Republicans, the political calculus on Zika appears to be changing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that about 30 states — many in the deep-red South — may have the mosquito capable of spreading the virus.
Leading the charge for Republicans is Senator Marco Rubio, back from his unsuccessful presidential run, who started pushing for funding, with his home state of Florida potentially one of the most impacted.
“The more, the better, sooner,” he said Monday. “We’ve got to get ahead of it.”
Rubio doesn’t begrudge senators wanting to scrutinize the spending, but said time isn’t on their side.
“Everything takes forever around here, man, it’s just part of the process,” Rubio said. “It’s a billion, almost two billion dollars we’re talking about, so you should be careful about how it’s spent and understand better about how it’s going to be used, but my hope is we can get it moving quickly before we get into the summer when the mosquitoes start spreading.”
The Florida Senate seat being vacated by Rubio is one of the most hotly contested in the country, with control of the chamber potentially at stake.
The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said the Senate would act on the issue in a bipartisan way.
“But we also ought to make sure that we don’t overshoot our goal and write a blank check for something when we don’t even know what the plan of attack is,” he said Tuesday on the Senate floor.
Senate appropriators held off adding a $1.1 billion emergency package to a bill in committee last week, as Republicans entered negotiations with Democrats on the best way to get the new spending to the president’s desk.
But with the Senate planning to recess at the end of this week, it will likely be well into May or later before the chamber can pass a bill. House appropriators are also working on a supplemental measure, but Republicans in both chambers face pressure from conservative groups like Heritage Action to cut overall spending.
Some of the party’s most bitter internal feuds have been over whether disasters like Superstorm Sandy can be paid for with more borrowing, or must be offset with cuts elsewhere. The same deep divisions over spending levels have so far thwarted House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hopes of passing a budget resolution this year.
Republicans also are separately pushing for a major boost to the defense budget paid for with war-related funding, a budgetary maneuver aimed at evading spending caps set in law.
Blunt said more information from the White House would be helpful, with Republicans keen to know exactly when the administration would spend the money.
Senate Democrats are sensing a political opportunity, with Republicans once again at war with themselves. Similar spending feuds are delaying funding for the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the opioid epidemic.
“Republicans are tied in a knot and don’t know what to do,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Reid’s heir apparent, told reporters Tuesday.
The New York Democrat blamed a hard-right contingent of senators who don’t want to spend the money, but said it would pass if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would simply bring it to the floor.
“McConnell doesn’t put it on the Senate floor because it breaks his party into pieces,” Schumer said.