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Dispute infects anti-Zika funding

The sputtering negotiations over federal funding to fight the Zika virus will culminate in a Senate vote this week on an allocation far lower than the White House originally requested — but which supporters hope is merely a down payment.

Three weeks after it was considered collapsed, a $1.1-billion bipartisan deal gingerly negotiated between Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, and Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, would help federal agencies fight the mosquito-borne virus that has already seeped into southern U.S. territories and states.

The deal is back from the dead because of the lack of progress to find other alternatives. Rank-and-file Senate Democrats initially balked at the total, insisting that negotiators hold a harder stance and demand a figure closer to the Obama administration’s request of $1.9 billion.

But congressional Republicans had their own internal divisions too, as House Republicans took a cautious, go-slow approach toward the funding — which angered Senate Republicans such as Blunt, who faces a close re-election contest this year, and GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose state is at high risk of an epidemic.

Murray, the top Democrat on a health appropriations subcommittee, said she hasn’t given up on congressional approval of the administration’s original $1.9-billion request.

“I continue to urge my colleagues to support the President’s full request,” Murray said. “But I am very encouraged that Democrats and Republicans will be able to come together with a strong step forward to help ensure families in Washington state and across the country are prepared to respond to this emergency.”

There are now up to 1,200 cases of Zika infection in the U.S., according to the federal Centers For Disease Control (CDC), which has linked the virus to birth defects such as blindness, muscular defects and abnormally small brains in infants. CDC officials say the disease can be sexually transmitted.

Most of the cases that have been reported are in Puerto Rico and Florida, although there are even three cases in Murray’s far-flung Washington state. Experts have said most U.S. states could see scores of cases as the weather continues to warm this summer.

A day and time for the votes haven’t been announced, but there will be a total of three Zika amendments. The first, by Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida, would allocate the administration’s full $1.9-billion original request, while the second, by GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas, would allocate $1.1 billion but offset it with spending cuts to the Affordable Care Act. The third — and the one considered most likely to succeed — is the Blunt-Murray amendment.

The bill would then head to the House for consideration, where Republican leaders are insisting on scrutinizing whether the money is truly necessary and how it would be spent. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California are also insisting on offsetting the new spending with budget cuts elsewhere, and on sending the allocation through the appropriations process.

Democrats say all of those measures are stalling steps that would delay the money even more, but Ryan and powerful conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America — the political action committee of the Heritage Foundation — are holding firm. On Friday, a Heritage spokesman in a statement accused the Obama administration of politicizing the issue, and insisted on offsetting spending cuts.

“If lawmakers decide additional funding is necessary, those funds should be fully offset either through reprogramming or spending as part of the appropriations process,” the statement said.

GOP leaders also point out that the administration is already spending $589 million on Zika virus efforts that was intended to fight the Ebola virus, making a total of $1.6 billion available.

The White House, for its part, has signaled a willingness to accept the lesser request. Press Secretary Josh Earnest said late last month the administration “wouldn’t rule it out of hand,” but warned against a “protracted debate.”

If allocated, the $1.1 billion would be spent on mosquito control, public information efforts, research and other prevention methods. About one-third of the money, $361 million, would go to the CDC, while $200 million would go to the National Institutes of Health for vaccine research and another $248 million would be spent on fighting the virus on foreign shores before it reaches the United States. 

Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada was bluntly critical of the deal late last week, saying it will be too little, too late to effectively defend the U.S. against the virus. Reid said House Republicans will likely reduce the $1.1-billion total amount, and that it won’t be available to federal officials until the fall, months after the threat has emerged.

Reid said Friday that Senate Republicans “have sat on their hands and done nothing” for months.

“Experts have made clear that funding is needed right now, not after mosquitoes carrying Zika arrive in the continental United States and after more children are born with severe brain defects and lifelong disabilities,” Reid said. “Fulfilling half of the president’s request is at most a paltry Band-Aid that will come too late and fail to address the scope of this crisis.”