Policy

Standoff Over Zika Spending Arrives at Convention

Virus response merits a rare mention about government spending

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed "Clinton Democrats" for obstructing a Zika virus response package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The blame game over stalled Zika funding made its way to the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faulted "Clinton Democrats" for blocking action.  

"As we sit here tonight, a terrifying mosquito-borne illness threatens expectant mothers and their babies along our Southern coast," the Kentucky Republican said in a speech at the Cleveland convention.  

"And, just last week, … Clinton Democrats in the Senate blocked a bill aimed at eradicating that virus before it can spread," he said. "And, they weren't finished. They blocked the defense funding bill, a bill that would support the brave men and women who are right now defending us overseas."  

[ Senate Democrats Block $1.1 Billion to Fight Zika ]  

McConnell then asked, "What in the world do these people think public service is about? I don't know, but I know this, if Hillary Clinton is our president, nothing will change."  

Calling for voters to think about the Supreme Court, he implored them: "Let's keep the Senate."  

McConnell made his remarks on the second night of the GOP convention, dedicated to the theme "Make America Work Again."  

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada responded Tuesday by blaming Republicans for not passing a funding package that would send extra money to fight Zika. The mosquito-borne virus has been linked to serious birth defects including microcephaly, in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head and can suffer neurological problems.  

"The Republican Senate has shown the [American] people nothing but ... gridlock and laziness while ignoring the nation's most pressing challenges," Reid said. "Republicans adjourned for the longest summer recess in 60 years to sojourn in Cleveland and pledge loyalty to Donald Trump instead of working with Democrats to solve problems like Zika, gun violence and Flint or filling the months-long vacancy on the Supreme Court."  

[ Obama: Congress Should Delay Summer Break to Pass Zika Bill ]  

Before leaving for a seven-week recess that stretches through early September, Republicans and Democrats were deadlocked in the Senate over multiple aspects of a Zika funding package in the form of a conference report — the result of negotiations between Republicans in both the House and the Senate. The House passed it June 23.  

No Democratic conferees signed the report. McConnell has repeatedly stressed that the report cannot be amended.  

Senate Democrats objected to language in the report on birth control and the environment as well as the offsets used to pay for the Zika funding.  

Most recently, on July 14, lawmakers for the second time rejected a motion to take a procedural step forward on sending the package to the president's desk by a vote of 52-44, failing to gain the 60 votes needed to limit debate.  

McConnell has set procedure in motion for another vote on the package when lawmakers return after Labor Day.  

Senate Democrats urged Republicans to instead move a standalone package that senators had previously agreed to as part of a triple-bill appropriations package that also contained the Senate's fiscal 2017 Military Construction-VA and Transportation-HUD measures. They passed a $1.1 billion Zika response that didn't contain offsets, the result of an agreement hashed out between GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.  

[ After Senate Stalls, White House Digs in on Zika Funding ]  

But McConnell said multiple times before leaving for the summer that simply handing the Senate's measure over to the House would achieve nothing because Republicans in that chamber would not accept the plan.  

A major issue has been the offsets — ways to pay for the measure, such as cuts in future spending, increases in revenue, or reprogramming of other funds.  

So far, talk of spending issues has been minimal at the Cleveland convention, though commitments have been made by various speakers that a Trump presidency would include either funding or new programs for police, veterans programs and defense.

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