Efforts to cut a deal on a Zika virus response before Congress leaves town face long odds, with congressional Republicans and the Obama administration still far apart on how much to spend, whether the cost should be offset, and policy riders Democrats deem “poison pills.”
Democrats are urging Republicans to send a $1.1 billion aid package to President Barack Obama’s desk that excludes budgetary offsets or language on contraception curbs and environmental permitting for mosquito spraying. Those and other provisions are included in an anti-Zika conference package to which Democrats and the administration object.
That measure passed the House, but remains stalled in the Senate. It is possible that Senate Republican leaders on Thursday will try another procedural vote to advance the legislation that is expected to fail.
The Republicans continue to demand that Democrats accept the GOP-crafted conference report, which featured no Democrats, or face blame if an aid package doesn’t reach the president before the fast-approaching summer break.
The sides appeared dug in even after the Obama administration officials made an eleventh-hour plea on Wednesday to Republican congressional leaders to approve emergency spending, according to a letter obtained by CQ Roll Call.
Notably, the letter contains no reference to a specific dollar figure or offsets. It also does not mention the provisions that Democrats have cited repeatedly as their reason for their opposition.
White House aides for months have clung firmly to President Barack Obama’s initial $1.9 billion anti-Zika funding request. But in the letter sent Tuesday to GOP leaders, two key Obama administration officials urge only “a funding plan that enjoys the bipartisan support needed to secure this critical funding during the short time remaining in the July session.”
If lawmakers adjourn as scheduled later this week for the national political conventions and a summer recess, “thousands more Americans could be infected with Zika virus, including potentially thousands of pregnant women leading to an unknown number of infants born with microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan and Health and Human Services Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell wrote to Republican leadership.
There are 1,132 confirmed travel-contracted cases of the mosquito-borne virus in the continental United States and Hawaii, Donovan and Burwell say in the letter. There are another 2,500 cases in U.S. territories. As of June 30, there were 320 pregnant women in the continental U.S. with evidence of the virus, and 279 in territories. Puerto Rico has been especially hard hit.
The officials acknowledge there have not yet been any cases of the virus being transmitted inside the United States. But they told the senior lawmakers, “We expect local transmission this summer as mosquito populations continue to become more active.”
And administration officials want to be prepared should that happen. But that will require additional funding right away, something the White House and federal health and budget officials have been telling lawmakers since February.
“We must be fully prepared to quickly address local transmission, particularly in states like Florida, Hawaii and Texas, where local transmission of diseases like Dengue and Chikungunya has occurred in the past, in addition to other states with known Aedes mosquito populations, the [same] that transmit Zika,” the letter says.
The letter went to Speaker Paul D. Ryan , R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., with Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada also receiving copies.
In the letter, Burwell and Donovan run through a list of anti-Zika actions federal entities will have to postpone unless Congress passes an emergency spending measure before mosquito season hits full swing.
One is the National Institutes of Health-led continued “aggressive” development of “test vaccine candidates and platforms to protect the population from the spread of Zika.” NIH can only complete the first phase of trials with additional funding, the officials warn.
They also warn the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority “would be forced to cancel or delay” planned work on “several promising vaccine candidates.”
What’s more, without new monies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would have “limited capacity” to help with efforts to counter mosquito populations in the continental U.S. and territories, they say. Burwell and Donovan also raise concerns about their ability to aid U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands counter the disease.
“Without additional funding from Congress, Puerto Rico and other … territories facing a Zika epidemic will face exponentially increasing needs for care of patients with Zika, infected pregnant women, and affected infants, with limited means of controlling the spread of the virus,” the officials wrote.
The White House for months appeared dug in on its initial $1.9 billion figure. In fact, just last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said administration officials saw no “significant Plan B” with lawmakers headed out of town soon.
Earnest recently disclosed that Obama discussed Zika funding with congressional leaders late last week. Asked last week by CQ Roll Call to describe those conversations, Earnest shot back that the president found them “intensely frustrating.”
The same day, July 6, Reid said Obama administration officials told him they would support a Senate-passed $1.1 billion Zika package, which passed as an amendment to a broader appropriations measure funding veterans programs and military construction (HR 2577 ). That package had no offsets.
An Economist/YouGov poll conducted July 2-4 indicated few Americans are concerned about contracting the virus, a finding that seems to have emboldened Republicans while thwarting efforts by the White House and Democrats to use the threat of punishment by voters to bring about a GOP reversal.