WASHINGTON — The Senate endorsed a compromise bill Tuesday that would provide $1.1 billion in federal funds to fight the Zika virus, increasing the odds that the Obama administration will have to settle for a smaller funding package than it wanted.
The vote will build pressure on the House to pass its own Zika bill later this week. But the Senate bill is significantly smaller than the $1.9 billion the administration asked for, and it’s now the biggest offer on the table in Congress, given that the House version is even smaller.
That means the administration and its allies in Congress will have to fight to get a final package that’s even as big as the Senate bill — let alone the full amount federal health officials say they need to prepare for the likely spread of the Zika virus this summer.
In a key procedural vote, the Senate agreed to end debate on the bill, negotiated by Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington state, on a 68-29 vote. Twenty-two Republicans supported the measure, which moves ahead as an amendment to a transportation funding measure that still has to pass the Senate.
By contrast, the House bill would give just $622 million to Zika efforts, and would take money out of unspent Ebola funds to pay for it. The administration threatened to veto the bill if the House passes it, with White House press secretary Josh Earnest calling it “woefully insufficient … three months late, and more than a billion dollars short.”
Blunt, however, was optimistic that the new movement in Congress could produce a Zika funding bill in the coming weeks.
“I would hope that in a matter of a few weeks, we would reach a final conclusion, and that that conclusion allows all of the agencies involved to plan their Zika spending up through the end of next fall, not this fall,” he said.
Speaking on the Senate floor before the vote, Blunt said his funding bill was “the most focused on exactly what’s needed to meet this crisis.” He argued that the administration padded its request with too many unnecessary items, including $175 million in unrestricted funds for the Department of Health and Human Services and $85 million to build new federal buildings.
“This is a bill designed to address an emergency situation, not a bill designed to make the most of an emergency,” Blunt said.
Along the way, the Senate voted down an alternative proposal that would have provided the full $1.9 billion the administration wanted. In a bipartisan twist, that measure was sponsored by the two Florida senators — including Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the former presidential candidate who’s now representing a state that could be hit hard by Zika this summer. The other sponsor is Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.
In a sign of growing nervousness in the GOP, four other Republicans voted for the full funding. Rubio warned his colleagues that they would face harsh questions from the public if there was a “significant and serious outbreak” this summer and Congress had not provided the full amount that public health officials said they needed.
“You’re going to have to come back here … and explain to people why, when doctors and medical experts were warning us that this was a significant risk, we decided to lowball it,” Rubio said.
The Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, is expected to spread as mosquito season begins this summer, possibly leading to US children being born with microcephaly, a birth defect in which a baby is born with an abnormally small head. States like Florida and Texas are especially at high risk, as well as other states along the Gulf Coast and as far north as Ohio.
Murray said she and other Democrats would keep pushing for the full $1.9 billion, but added the Senate bill would at least be a “down payment” that would get funding to medical researchers and public health departments quickly.
“Families across the country are looking to Congress for action on Zika. They do not have time for lengthy debates about offsets or more time to waste,” Murray said.
The Senate also shot down a Republican alternative by Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking GOP leader, that also would have provided the $1.1 billion but would have cut a preventive health fund in Obamacare to pay for it. That would have been almost certain veto-bait for President Obama, who has fought back many other attempts to cut parts of his signature health care law.
Cornyn said his bill would allow Congress to address the Zika emergency in a “fiscally responsible way.” Rubio, however, countered that “this is a public health emergency … Zika funding is not the reason we have an $18 trillion debt.”
The Blunt-Murray bill is treated as emergency funding, so it doesn’t have corresponding cuts to other programs to pay for it.
It includes nearly $450 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; $200 million for the National Institutes of Health; $150 million for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund at the Department of Health and Human Services; and $211 million for global health programs at the US Agency for International Development.
Under a normal negotiation between the Senate and the House, lawmakers would split the difference, meaning a final Zika bill could be significantly less than $1 billion. But Democrats are counting on pressure on House Republicans — particularly the ones living in Southern states — to make them more open to approving the Senate bill without cutting it.