Federal funding to fight the Zika virus has stalled not just because of the usual interparty fights, but because of internal rifts within both major parties.
Unlike most spending fights, which pit Democrats versus Republicans, or Congress against the White House, the Zika battle represents a new epidemic at the Capitol: Neither party can agree with itself.
The mosquito-borne virus already has entered U.S. territories, with hundreds of cases reported in Puerto Rico and 94 in Florida. The U.S. Centers For Disease Control has linked Zika to birth defects, such as blindness, muscular defects and abnormally small brains in infants, and it has warned that it can be sexually transmitted.
The White House has been engaged. The Obama administration in late February asked Congress for $1.9 billion, but Republicans resisted and instead insisted the administration shift funds that were earmarked to fight the Ebola virus. The White House did, providing $589 million.
But a deal that emerged this week to provide $1.1 billion appears to have collapsed, after Senate Democrats split among themselves during an internal meeting on Tuesday. Leaders had presented the deal to the caucus, but most members rejected it and insisted that the full $1.9 billion be appropriated.
Democratic leaders in both chambers tried to put the best face on their messy situation on Wednesday. Senate
Minority Leader Harry Reid defended his rank-and-file members by joining in their insistence on a full $1.9 billion appropriation and rejecting the idea of offsetting it with spending cuts elsewhere. “If this isn’t an emergency, nothing is,” he said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told AMI Newswire that the funds would be used for mosquito control, public information efforts, research and other prevention methods.
“This is nothing to mess with,” she said. “You would not want this on your hands.”
Among Republicans, the intraparty split is mostly between GOP negotiators in the Senate who had struck the fragile $1.1 billion compromise and their House counterparts who have long been reticent to grant more money and are demanding a slower process.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said Tuesday that existing funds are sufficient and that the issue should be dealt with through the usual Appropriations process. He also blamed the White House, arguing that Republican appropriators have asked a number of questions about the funding needs that haven’t been answered yet.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has also insisted that any emergency funds for Zika be offset by spending cuts elsewhere – a time-taking task that would further tie up appropriators.
At a Capitol press conference on Wednesday, Ryan threw even more cold water on the idea of quick congressional action, saying that leaders haven’t even settled on a strategy. And, Ryan signaled, GOP leaders want time to closely scrutinize the White House’s initial $1.9 billion funding request.
“We are looking at all different options. The administration has a bit of a track record of over-requesting what they need.”
The potential delays have Senate Republicans grumbling.
“I’d like to see them get a little further along,” GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a lead negotiator, said of House Republicans.
Other GOP internal defections have come from high-profile members, such as former presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida, who supports the full $1.9 billion request because of the risk of an epidemic in his state.
At Wednesday’s press conference by Democratic leaders, legislators said up to 30 U.S. states could be at risk by the end of this year’s mosquito season, and they warned that prevention efforts are already behind schedule.
“The mosquitoes are coming,” said Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “You can’t build a wall to keep them out, and they won’t pay for it. We need to act now before we are stung by mosquitoes and then the voters.”