Policy

Obama Sits Out Zika Deliberations on Hill

Hands-off approach also applies to compromise gun measure

The White House says President Barack Obama is opting to not get involved in congressional negotiations over a Zika package and a Senate gun control measure. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The White House on Wednesday wouldn't rule out a veto of any plan to address the Zika virus outbreak that allocates less than the $1.9 billion in emergency funds that the administration requested in February.  

President Barack Obama’s top spokesman said the president won’t try to persuade Congress to finish a conference report on a Zika package. He will also remain on the sidelines of congressional efforts to reach agreement on a Senate measure that might make it harder for terrorists or would-be mass murderers to buy guns.  

“I don’t really understand why the president should be in a position where he has to twist arms in Congress to get Republicans to do … commonsense things that would protect the country from the Zika virus,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.  

[ Zika Deal in the Works as CDC Reports Virus-Linked Birth Defects ]  

Officials such as Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci have spent time meeting with lawmakers about the $1.9 billion request.  

“The president lent his voice and his team’s own legislative expertise to putting together and trying to advance the necessary funding to fight Zika that our public health officials asked for,” Earnest said in response to a question from Roll Call.  

Earnest acknowledged that goading Congress remains part of the presidential job description. But he made clear that on striking bipartisan accords on Zika funding and gun control, the ball is squarely in the lawmakers’ court.  

“Look, I think that's why we've advocated for [a Zika bill]. The president has certainly made the case that this is an important thing for Congress to do,” Earnest said. “The president rolled this out with a lot of fanfare. The president discussed this proposal in [a] nationally televised interview with CBS. The president has had individual conversations with members of Congress.”  

zika-mosquito-maps(Updated) House and Senate negotiations on the Zika package have plodded for weeks in search of a compromise that could pass both chambers and garner Obama’s signature. On Wednesday, House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky confirmed that an agreement is in place. Several senior aides said the final conference report is expected to be filed on the House floor, hopefully before midnight Wednesday.  

The House-passed Zika package would allocate $622 million in fiscal 2016 supplemental appropriations, which would be completely paid for by cuts to other federal programs. The Senate’s version, passed as part of a broader appropriations package, calls for $1.1 billion for Zika with no offsets.  

Obama's hands-off approach appears to extend to the ongoing talks among senators about a gun control measure being pushed by Sen. Susan Collins .  

The Maine Republican says she has been promised floor time either this week or next for a proposal to ban firearm sales to the estimated 109,000 people on the federal no-fly and selectee lists. The measure is an attempt to pass some kind of gun control legislation in the wake of the June 12 massacre in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 nightclub patrons and staff members.  

[ Senate Votes to Go to Conference on Zika Spending ]  

When pressed about the president’s involvement in the Senate’s gun deliberations, Earnest said, “This is something that, frankly, is being negotiated in the Senate.”  

Obama has not felt a need to get involved because “there is no ambiguity about the administration position on this,” he said, noting that Justice Department and FBI officials are still conducting a “technical” review of the Collins proposal, which is backed by a handful of GOP and Democratic senators.  

“There are some important technical questions that do have to be considered,” Earnest said. “If we determine that it's necessary or it would be helpful for the president to intervene, I am sure he would not hesitate to do so. But to this point, that has not been necessary.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

Contact Bennett at  johnbennett@cqrollcall.com  and follow him on Twitter  @BennettJohnT .

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