Mosquitoes could bring to 30 U.S. states a disease that causes birth defects and neurological disorders. Yet the White House and congressional Republicans have been too busy talking past each other and lobbing rhetorical shots to do much about it.
The battle over funds for a response to the Zika virus is, in many ways, a symbol of the Obama era. The White House and Republicans in Congress fundamentally misunderstand and distrust each other. Neither side appears willing to bend. It could fall to Democrats such as Sen. Patty Murray of Washington to broker a deal that adds emergency dollars to an unspecified appropriations bill.
“We’ve been talking a great deal with each other. Senator Murray is our lead negotiator. It looks promising, but we’re not quite there yet,” Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told CQ Roll Call.
Senior House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky, say the White House is stonewalling them by refusing to answer questions about a $1.9 billion administration funding request. The Republicans seem skeptical that the Obama administration needs the entire amount to tackle the virus.
“So far nobody in the administration has pointed out to us anything that they wanted to happen that hasn’t happened for lack of money,” said Tom Cole, R-Okla., a senior House appropriator. “We will work through this, but it doesn’t help when people try to exploit it as a political issue or it’s thrown on legislation that it has absolutely nothing to do with.”
White House officials note that the government’s top public health officials say they will soon need new funds to address the outbreak. They sound bewildered and frustrated that Republicans opted not to act on a funding request sent to Capitol Hill in late February.
One White House official fumed this week about House Republicans constantly moving the goalposts.
“It’s just nonsense for them to say we haven’t given them enough information,” the White House official said. “First they said we had enough [funding]. Then they said we should handle it in the normal appropriations process. Now they say the might do something sooner but we haven’t given them any information.”
The administration this week provided House Republicans with additional details of how much could be needed for work on a Zika vaccine, the official said. Echoing Press Secretary Josh Earnest, the official described the White House as “very willing” to hammer out a compromise Zika bill with GOP appropriators.
“This can get figured out,” the official said. “But we have seen a complete unwillingness from Republicans in Congress to do anything on this.”
“There’s actually a legislative text here that Congress can act on,” Earnest said on Thursday. “If they have their own suggestions for things that they would like to do differently, in some cases they may be contradicting the advice of the foremost public health professionals in the United States.”
But the power of the federal purse strings lies with the legislative branch. Even after seven years in office, the administration seems surprised that a House Republican caucus that has consistently demanded spending cuts might quibble with adding nearly $2 billion to tackle a virus that might — or might not — be a major problem domestically.
“When administrations have sent up requests like these over the years, there simply were not these kinds of requests for more information,” the official said in a frustrated tone. “We’re not building a missile here; we can’t be expected to know the costs of a dynamic situation that is still evolving. Yes, we can make projections, but those aren’t hard and fast.”
The official added that states potentially first in the crosshairs of Zika are in the South, mostly with Republican governors and legislatures. “It doesn’t make any political or geographic sense,” the official said.
GOP leaders seem to have been wagering that the virus won’t be that serious as temperatures warm across the southern United States. But they’re actively talking with Democrats about adding funding to a fiscal 2017 spending bill. The next opportunity in the Senate would be at a scheduled markup of the fiscal 2017 Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-HUD measures on Thursday.
Fiscal conservatives would prefer to wait and allocate any new Zika dollars during the regular appropriation process. That would allow them to fit the funds within the domestic spending caps they favor.
But White House aides note that lawmakers aren’t likely to pass a full government spending bill until after Election Day. Such a massive omnibus measure might not hit the president’s desk before the third month of the new fiscal year which begins Oct. 1.
The White House might face an uphill fight in getting Zika funding in a year-end spending measure. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Wednesday that GOP members appear unwilling to breach the spending caps.
With Washington, D.C., temperatures already hitting the 80s, not even daily dire warnings from the White House have caused GOP leaders to budge.
“At some point this summer … this is going to be dominating the news,” Earnest said Thursday, predicting Zika cases inside the continental U.S. “We did have an opportunity to prepare for it.”
Democrats say the administration has provided enough details.
“It is all laid out,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Appropriations Committee member. “We have more information about this than we had about going to war in Iraq.”
Fiery rhetoric, however, doesn’t resolve disputes or prevent national epidemics. As the last seven years have shown, it typically fuels the dysfunction. And there’s no political vaccine in sight.
Kellie Mejdrich and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.
Contact Bennett at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.
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