Health Care

Rift opens in GOP over Zika funding

Congressional Republicans are split on whether to provide emergency funding to fight the Zika virus.  

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) cast doubt on the emergency request Tuesday, saying he thinks the issue should be dealt with through the regular appropriations process. That would mean new funds have to wait until Oct. 1.

{mosads}Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are working with Democrats toward a deal that could make new Zika funding available well before then.  

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Appropriations health subcommittee, has been negotiating with Senate Democrats, but also talking to House Republicans about a way forward in that chamber. 

“I think the House is not where we are yet in terms of dealing with this issue, and I’d like to see them get a little further along,” he told reporters Tuesday. 

Blunt has been in talks with Democrats about a roughly $1.1 billion bill, which is less than the White House’s request of $1.9 billion but would still provide an infusion of new funds.  

“I think there’s a general willingness on the Senate side to move forward at some point in the foreseeable future,” Blunt said.  

McCarthy struck a different tone in the House, telling reporters that the administration already has enough money to fight the virus.

“There is enough money there, especially to deal with [it] this year,” the GOP leader said. “So if we’re going through the proper appropriations process this year, it’s the best way to handle it, best place to get the answers.” 

Zika is expected to spread into the southern United States this summer, with cases projected to pop up in Florida and Texas. U.S. health officials still expect Zika to be contained to small clusters, but acknowledge that the virus is unpredictable and poses serious risks to pregnant women.    

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), a former presidential candidate who isn’t seeking reelection, came out in favor of the full $1.9 billion White House request for emergency funds early this month. He has been a prominent voice raising pressure on the Senate to act. 

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, said that he has been meeting with health experts in his state. He cautioned that funding must come in a “responsible way,” but said the Senate will “deal with this threat, because we know it’s real.” 

“We haven’t yet concluded how much or when, but we all are very much aware that this is a serious crisis,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “We’ll be working on it with the administration and the Democrats.” 

While Senate Republicans are more amenable to emergency funding than their House counterparts, Senate Democrats are still applying pressure. 

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said Tuesday that lawmakers should approve the emergency bill before leaving town Friday for a one-week recess. Blunt told reporters later Tuesday that “it’s unlikely anything happens this week.”

Reid pointed to the serious birth defects that can be caused when pregnant women catch the virus.

“I say to my Republican colleagues, and I say to the Republican leader, do we want to wait until more babies are born with these permanent disabilities — these disabilities caused by a virus that we could help prevent, if not for all, than many?”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the funding bill is being held up by objections from the far right. 

“If the southern states are hurt, my state is hurt, and if my state is hurt, the southern states are hurt,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday. 

“So I think that there’s pressure on them to perform, I think Leader McConnell knows that there’s pressure to perform, but like on so many other issues, he doesn’t want to get the hard right upset,” he added. “The hard right says any time we spend any money on anything, it’s no good.”

Heritage Action, an influential conservative outside group, has come out against emergency funding for Zika, and says that if it must go forward, the costs should be offset, a hurdle that would be hard for lawmakers to overcome in a bipartisan way. 

House Republicans have been saying they need more details from the administration about where the funding would go, and have noted that the administration already shifted about $500 million of Ebola funds over to Zika. 

The White House pushed back hard on Tuesday.

“Ignorance is not an excuse,” said press secretary Josh Earnest. “They’ve had opportunities to ask their questions. There is ample information that has been provided by the administration.”

Still, Blunt said that more information might be able to bring the House along.

“I’ve spent part of the day today talking to people on the House side about the best way to get this bill actually on the president’s desk,” Blunt said Tuesday. “And I think a little more input from the administration would be helpful too.”

—Jordan Fabian and Scott Wong contributed. 

Tags Chuck Schumer Harry Reid John Cornyn Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Roy Blunt

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