A stalemate in the Senate over a $1.1. billion plan to combat the Zika virus has both Republicans and Democrats pointing fingers across the aisle but has produced no workable plan for delivering the needed aid.
Senate Democrats on Tuesday blocked the plan , arguing the measure was riddled with unacceptable provisions added when they were cut out of negotiations. Republicans said the conference report, already approved by the House, was the last chance to get something done.
So what happens next? It’s not clear yet, given that tempers are still flaring from the partisan back-and-forth. While some senators offered to reopen negotiations, Senate leaders said they plan to vote on the GOP-preferred measure again next week, and hope pressure back home will cause senators to change their minds.
“Democrats are going to have to stew in their own juices and listen to some of their own constituents here, who I know are justifiably concerned about the virus,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.
Democrats, too, argued that Republicans might be more willing to relent as more Zika virus cases spring up and and more babies are born with birth defects from the illness.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., pointed out that a Florida hospital reported its first case of a baby born with Zika-related birth defects — the fifth such case reported in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The child was born to a Haitian mother who traveled to Florida to deliver the baby.
Microcephaly, or an abnormally small head, is a symptom of the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes and can also be transmitted sexually.
“The fact that now a fifth baby with microcephaly has been born, this one in Florida, I think is going to all the more bring it to the attention of the American people,” Nelson said. “And eventually those guys are going to have to cave.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday that the House-adopted conference report could not be amended, and the provisions Democrats did not like were part of the price of being in the minority party.
“You don’t get everything exactly the way you want, which is why we enjoy being in the majority more than the minority,” McConnell said.
The Tuesday vote was a result of a conference between the House and Senate that was supposed to reconcile their divergent funding packages.
Democrats say they were eventually shut out of the negotiations, and were presented with the final conference report that included cuts to the Affordable Care Act, changes to rules on insecticide spraying and what they considered limited access to birth control.
“The bill passed by House Republicans doesn’t recognize Zika as a public health emergency,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said in a statement. “It nickels and dimes our efforts to respond. It makes it more difficult for women to access birth control. And it waives safety rules for the use of pesticides. Now the House has left town and expects the Senate to pass this terrible bill.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., one of the chief negotiators, did not completely rule out further talks.
“We have to deal with this,” Blunt told reporters. “I hope that the solution that’s already been negotiated turns out to be the solution.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a lead negotiator for the Democrats, said she is willing to go back to the table.
“If they’re willing to come back and work with us, I am here,” Murray said. “I am ready to work.”
But the core disagreement may not necessarily be between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. Murray and Blunt negotiated a $1.1 billion deal that more than two-thirds of senators approved in May.
The struggle was reconciling it with the House measure, which was a $622 million package.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the conference report was the best they could get from the House.
“I think we’ve moved the House pretty far on this already,” Rubio said. “It would be very difficult to move them any further. ”
Rubio chided Democrats for not being able to support the conference measure Tuesday. He said he did not anticipate further talks on the funding.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., also blasted Senate Democrats for the blockade, calling it “ridiculous” and “irresponsible.” But he did not indicate what might happen next.
Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican, wrote to Ryan seeking a new round of talks on legislation that would be acceptable to both parties before the August recess.
“I write to express the urgency of this issue to states like Florida and to ask for your assistance and leadership in quickly reaching a bicameral, bipartisan consensus package that can be enacted into law before the end of July,” Jolly wrote.
Both sides are already pushing the politics of the vote. As the Senate clerk was calling the roll for the Tuesday vote, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty was blasting GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey for backing the conference report.
McGinty charged Toomey with holding the anti-Zika funding “hostage” by supporting the policy riders opposed by Democrats.
John T. Bennett and Ryan McCrimmon contributed to this report.