Politics

How Zika Could Bite the GOP

Graham says one preventable case could turn electorate against Republicans

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says there is political risk of inaction. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It could take just one pesky mosquito bite to put the public against Senate Republicans.  

Or so says one of the GOP senators involved in drafting supplemental legislation to address a public health response to the Zika virus, an illness that's been shown to cause serious birth defects.  

"I think if you have one case of Zika infection that, you know, we could have done something about then we own it," South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters Thursday.  

"If it's seen that we were unreasonable, then it could be very bad for us. If we're trying to make the funding more fiscally sound and appropriate to the threat, then we're OK," said Graham, who as chairman of the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs subcommittee is the point man on funding. "But if we're just playing games with numbers and we don't consider it an emergency, I think we're in trouble."  

A day after he spoke, the death of a 70-year-old man in Puerto Rico was linked to an outbreak of the virus in the U.S. territory, the Associated Press reported .  

So far, authorities have reported over 1,000 cases in the United States and its territories. A majority originated locally — mainly in Puerto Rico — while the remainder were transmitted by travelers from outbreak areas.  

"This is another wake-up call that both parties in Congress better get it together to address the Zika virus that's impacting more people, more states, more unborn children and now taking lives," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who this week urged the Senate to move quickly to deal with the virus.  

[Related: Zika Threat Wider Than Originally Thought] Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat in line to take over as majority leader if control of the Senate flips after November's election, has led his colleagues in blasting the Republicans for leaving for recess next week with so much unresolved work, including Zika related legislation.  

Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took to the floor on Thursday to push for immediate passage of a $1.9 billion supplemental package that was requested by the Obama administration; Republicans have argued that the request is not detailed enough to be a serious plan.  

Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas objected to Reid's request, and Republican leaders said a plan would be coming soon.  

"Now, we're going to take care of the public when it comes to Zika. We're going to see how much money can realistically be spent and where it needs to be spent to be effective," said Mississippi Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "In the meantime, in the few days that it takes to come up with something that is effective and realistic and cost-effective, there is sufficient money to get us stopgap protections."  

[Related: Zika Virus Spurs War of Words] President Barack Obama has reprogrammed about $600 million marked for responding to the Ebola outbreak in Africa to the new Zika crisis, but public health officials say that's insufficient. In addition, money is still needed to deal with Ebola over the long term.  

[Related: Zika Virus Funding Met with Caution in Congress] Wicker added, "I think we are mindful that Harry Reid would love to politicize this. He is drooling over the prospect of politicizing this, and that said, we are going to come up with an expedited plan that's backed up by science and will actually get to the problem."  

To that, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua responded, "Here’s your GOP Majority at work: failing to do their jobs and going on recess without addressing a major public health crisis. Who needs Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to drag down the party's reelection prospects when Republican senators are so willing to do it on their own?"  

Politics aside, Republicans involved in crafting a scaled-back emergency supplemental are optimistic they will have something ready to hit the floor shortly after the next week's recess. It remains unclear just how big the package could be or what legislative vehicle might be used to get it through the chamber.  

Speaking on the floor Thursday, one key GOP negotiator said it was important to draft something the House might take up as well.  

"The goal is not for the Senate to pass a bill. The goal is for the Congress to pass a bill and the president of the United States to sign that bill," said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee.  

The subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said the debate over how to pay for the Zika funding was critical.  "This issue is far too important to have Republican infighting hold it up," she said.  

But Graham for one says a discussion about offsets should not be a reason for delay once questions about the necessity of the funding levels are answered.  

"I think asking questions about the administration's plan, not just giving them a blank check, makes sense," said Graham. "If you can pay for it, offset it, fine, but I think it's truly an emergency."  

Contact Lesniewski at nielslesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.