Senators Seek to Settle Zika Bill’s Cost
Aim to wrap up talks on emergency package this week
Senate appropriators are aiming to wrap up this week their negotiations on how they’ll pass an emergency spending package to address the Zika virus as well as its cost, sources familiar with the negotiations told CQ Roll Call on Monday.
Sources cautioned that there are still plenty of moving pieces as senior health and foreign aid appropriators work to reach an agreement on a funding package containing upwards of $1 billion in emergency aid to combat the mosquito-borne virus, which health officials fear will spread rapidly as warmer months bring a rise in the insect population. Both chambers are scheduled to leave for a one-week recess at the end of this week.
The White House has requested $1.9 billion in emergency spending to develop vaccines and combat mosquito populations, among other needs, but the Senate package is expected to contain closer to $1.1 billion, though a number hasn’t yet been disclosed.
“The numbers that I’ve seen are slightly higher than a billion,” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat on the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, told reporters last week. “If you’re in the billion dollar range, you are going to be able to get done what we need.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran , R-Miss., announced last week that negotiations were underway among Republicans Roy Blunt of Missouri and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrats Patty Murray of Washington and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont.
Cochran said the aid would be attached to a fiscal 2017 appropriations bill likely to hit the Senate floor soon, though he was not specific.
“It is my expectation that this proposal will be offered to an appropriations measure on the Senate floor in the near future,” the Mississippi Republican said at an Appropriations Committee markup Thursday.
The Senate is nearing completion on an Energy-Water spending measure currently on the floor. But the bill’s floor manager, Lamar Alexander , R-Tenn., told CQ Roll Call last week he hasn’t heard anything about the Energy-Water measure serving as a vehicle for the Zika package.
Blunt, chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, said at the Thursday markup that the goal was to attach the Zika funds to an appropriations bill that was not only one of the first measures considered but also had a strong chance of passing the House and reaching the president’s desk.
The Senate proposal could also spark a battle over whether or not to pay for the new emergency spending, a potential standoff that some senators fear would stall much-needed resources as the virus spreads faster in the warmer season.
If the package is deemed “emergency spending,” the money won’t count against statutory spending caps. But fiscal hawks, especially in the House, may demand matching cuts elsewhere in the federal budget to offset the new funding.
“We see our job as being good stewards of the taxpayer dollars, as making sure that we have answers to our questions about how we fund these things,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan told reporters last week. The Wisconsin Republican has previously said of a potential Zika response, “We offset emergency funding.”
The virus is known to cause birth defects, including abnormally small heads, and has already reached a majority of U.S. states. After months of partisan squabbling over how to respond to the disease, some members fear a lengthy logjam over “offsets” would only exacerbate the crisis.
“I certainly wouldn’t support an offset,” Murphy said. “I think this is a classic emergency appropriation. If we start fighting over an offset, it’s just going to delay the legislation.”
Barbara A. Mikulski , the top Democrat on Senate Appropriations, said the resources must be approved by Congress by July 1.
“We are in a race against the clock. We are in a race with the mosquitoes, and right now I would say the mosquitoes are winning,” the Maryland Democrat said last week.
But some conservatives may attempt to delay passage of the supplemental funding. The lengthy blockade by Sen. Mike Lee , R-Utah, of emergency aid for Flint, Mich., to fix water infrastructure and help families affected by lead poisoning shows the difficult terrain for emergency spending proposals.
The legislation is likely to run into obstacles on the other side of the Capitol as well.
House Republicans remain gridlocked over their own budget resolution, held up by internal disputes over government spending levels. Caught in the middle of that fiscal fight, GOP leaders and appropriators have been cagey about granting emergency dollars to combat Zika — early bipartisan negotiations have largely devolved into a war of words between Republicans and the White House.
“While we are reassured that there appears to be initial steps to rectifying Congress’s failure to act to date, any proposal that does not provide needed assistance in this fiscal year and does not protect or replenish the funding critical to our ongoing Ebola response will be insufficient to the risks facing the country,” White House spokesman Peter Boogaard said last week of the Senate deliberations. The administration earlier this month yielded to Republican demands and shifted nearly $600 million in existing dollars, which were intended to deal with the Ebola virus, towards the Zika response.
Providing new emergency dollars without matching cuts could provoke a backlash from deficit hawks who are already upset about the levels of discretionary spending that leadership and appropriators are pushing in the regular appropriations bills.
“We don’t know the content of that bill yet, so we’ll reserve judgment until we see what it is they are up to,” House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers , R-Ky., told reporters last week of the Senate proposal.
But a letter from the conservative group Heritage Action last week to Rogers and Cochran illustrated the sort of opposition appropriators are likely to face when trying to move any emergency spending.
The group called on Rogers and Cochran to “either reprogram existing fiscal 2016 spending or work within the confines of the upcoming fiscal 2017 spending process. This can be done without reverting to ‘emergency spending’ outside of those the caps,” meaning the discretionary spending limits put in place in 2011 and modified in last year’s bipartisan budget deal.
The letter included a list of spending accounts — mostly United Nations and environmental programs — that could be slashed to pay for the Zika response programs.
The legislation could also get bogged down by Democrats attempting to use the Zika package as a vehicle for other spending priorities, including emergency dollars to combat prescription drug abuse or send aid to Flint. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., has already pledged to “absolutely” try to tag each of those items to any Zika virus legislation.
Meanwhile, House Democrats led by Rep. Nita M. Lowey of New York, ranking member on Appropriations, on Monday introduced their own Zika funding bill, which reflects the administration’s $1.9 billion request as well as funds for the National Institutes of Health and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for vaccine and diagnostic research and development, and a corresponding reduction in other funding.