Published December 02, 2016
House and Senate Republicans sealed an agreement among themselves Wednesday night on a $1.1 billion measure to combat the Zika virus, but the measure drew immediate opposition from Democrats who signaled they would scuttle it over its spending cuts and "poison pills."
The measure — and the looming partisan battle over it — comes as a deadline to pass the Zika funding into law grows near.
"These dollars must get out the door now to help control the spread of the Zika virus," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky.
An infection by the Zika virus can cause grave birth defects. President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion four months ago to fight Zika. Republicans initially displayed little urgency to respond to the request, and forced the administration to devote more than $500 million of unspent Ebola funding to fight Zika.
The government's anti-Zika efforts include developing a vaccine, research into better tests to detect Zika, help for states and localities to battle the mosquitoes that spread it, and help for foreign countries mount their own defenses against the virus.
The compromise measure's $1.1 billion price tag matches the amount the Senate approved last month. The measure calls for $750 million in spending cuts to offset the funding for Zika efforts, including $543 million in unused funds from implementation of Obama's health care law and $107 million in cuts to leftover Ebola funding.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., called the agreement a responsible plan. "Now we need to get this bill to the president's desk," he said.
The House was slated to vote on the measure on Thursday — if GOP leaders can wrest control of the floor from Democrats mounting a protest in hopes of forcing votes on gun-related legislation. Democrats hijacked the floor on Wednesday, upending GOP leaders' plans to debate a Treasury Department funding bill. They showed no signs they would relent on Thursday.
The Senate measure did not contain offsetting spending cuts and treated the Zika crisis as an official "emergency" like recent funding to battle Ebola and forest fires. It is being paired with a measure funding the Department of Veterans Affairs. Democrats said it is wrong to require spending cuts to pay for a response to a public health crisis while not requiring them for other emergencies such as wildfires, floods and Ebola.
Top House Appropriations Committee Democrat Nita Lowey of New York said the offsetting spending cuts would "set a precedent that will hinder our ability to respond to the next public health crisis, natural disaster, or national security event."
One of the provisions opposed by Democrats blocks supplemental funds in the measure from going to Planned Parenthood for birth control services for women at risk of becoming infected with the virus. Such services would be instead provided by public health providers such as community health centers. But the GOP move appeared to incite Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to charge, without foundation, that the bill "cuts off women's access to birth control."
The measure also contains a watered-down version of a provision backed by the House that would ease rules on pesticide permitting requirements.
"Just when you think you've seen it all, Republicans try to leverage a public health crisis to roll back access to health care for women and ram through an ideological agenda," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "Republicans are so controlled by their hard right that they are incapable of working with Democrats to solve a public health crisis and actually govern the country."
"Utter and complete nonsense," countered Stephen Worley, a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. "The conference agreement includes $1.1 billion in 'real emergency funding' to fight the Zika virus, the same amount that Sen. Schumer and the entire Democratic caucus voted for."
A spokeswoman for Reid, D-Nev., predicted that Democrats would successfully filibuster the measure. At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said Republicans had again "put political games ahead of the health and safety of the American people, particularly pregnant women and their babies."
What might happen next is uncertain. But time to pass the measure to provide money to battle the virus, which can be spread by mosquitoes common in much of the U.S., is slipping away as Congress is slated to recess for the party political conventions in mid-July.
The measure also contains a modified provision to permit combat veterans whose wounds have left them unable to conceive children to seek in-vitro fertilization treatments. But it would not permit the use of donor eggs and sperm to help veterans with the most severe injuries to their sexual organs have children.
GOP leaders also orchestrated removal of a House-passed provision that would ban the display of the Confederate flag over mass graves in VA cemeteries.