WASHINGTON — Three months after President Obama asked for emergency funds to fight the Zika virus, Capitol Hill is getting ready to write a check — though probably a much smaller one than Obama requested. But deep differences remain between the House and Senate.
Here’s what we’ve learned from the fight thus far:
Those who see Zika as an emergency are frustrated
Take Marco Rubio. The Republican senator from Florida is genuinely worried about Zika; he knows it could hit his state hard. He backs Obama’s request for $1.9 billion in funds. But he told STAT during a chat on the Senate subway that many of his Republican colleagues don’t see Zika as a threat that could actually affect their constituents.
“The sense from some was that this is something happening somewhere else, that we weren’t necessarily going to face the risk of it,” Rubio said.
“The objection is usually, you know, ‘Why can’t we use the money that we’re already spending and just reallocate it?’ which I don’t generally disagree with,” Rubio said. “The problem with a public health emergency is, it requires not just that you do the right thing, but that you do it at the right time. You want to get ahead of it.”
Here’s something else that puzzles Rubio: The White House hasn’t reached out to him for help with the lobbying effort. Sure, he had plenty of harsh words for Obama on the presidential campaign trail — but on Zika, they’re on the same side.
“I haven’t spoken to the White House once on this,” Rubio said. “I mean, I’m doing this as a senator from Florida, but the White House has never reached out to me, and I’ve never spoken to them about this.”
The House is thinking of the Zika funding as an installment plan
All the talk this week has focused on the huge gap between the bottom-line numbers: the White House asked for $1.9 billion, the Senate passed $1.1 billion, and the House approved only $622 million.
But during the House floor debate, the top Republican appropriators made it clear that that’s not how they think of it. They view the Zika money as coming in three installments.
Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the chairman of the subcommittee that funds the health agencies, described it this way: The first installment was the $589 million the administration has already shifted over from Ebola and other programs. (More on that later.) The second third will be the $622 million bill that the House passed on Wednesday, which runs through the end of September.
And the third? That could come in the regular appropriations bills the House is preparing for the next fiscal year that starts in October, he said.
“Remember, the $1.9 billion isn’t needed today. It’s needed over a multi-year period,” he said.
By contrast, the Senate bill appropriates more funding, but it also envisions the money lasting longer — it runs through September 2017.
So much for the Ebola money
When the administration diverted the $589 million in existing funds to the Zika effort earlier this year, some officials privately characterized it as a gesture of good faith — something they had to do to convince congressional Republicans to respond with new funding.
Instead, it now appears that Republicans see it as a justification for not providing as much new money.
Both Cole and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers are counting the diverted funds toward the total amount they say Congress is providing for Zika, even though it was really just money that the administration already had on hand.
Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who cosponsored the Senate Zika bill, tried to make the administration’s case in the floor debate this week. “The fact that the administration [transferred Ebola money] shows in a good way just how serious they are about the crisis,” he said during Tuesday’s floor debate.
But Cole doesn’t seem to think it’s necessary to backfill the money taken out of the Ebola fund (even though he has previously talked about doing just that).
“We may well have appropriated more than we needed to” on Ebola, he said Wednesday.
There’s no veto threat against the Senate bill
The White House has threatened to veto the House bill, and takes every opportunity to explain why: It’s not enough money, it raids the Ebola funds, etc.
But it hasn’t threatened to veto the $1.1 billion Senate bill — and White House press secretary Josh Earnest has passed up opportunities to say that it would be outright unacceptable. That raises the possibility that the Senate bill could be the compromise position.
At a Wednesday press briefing, Earnest said the administration would “continue to advocate for the $1.9 billion” — the full amount the White House requested. But, he added, “I don’t have a veto threat to issue on the $1.1 billion.”
Republicans are gettable
Sure, they might prefer to spend less money or to pay for the Zika spending by cutting elsewhere. But the votes they’ve already cast for the Senate bill show that they’re not dug in — and that a substantial number will vote for as much as $1.1 billion, whether it’s paid for or not.
On Thursday, 22 Republicans voted for the bipartisan Senate bill when it was officially attached to a transportation funding measure.
A lot of those 22 Republicans, it must be said, are from states that are likely to be affected by Zika. But that still means it’s more than the handful of moderates, or the representatives facing close reelection races, who will vote for a bipartisan bill when given the chance.
Even Senator David Vitter of Louisiana — who’s a thorn in the Obama administration’s side on just about every other issue — voted for the Senate Zika money.
Where is all of this headed?
There are procedural kinks to be worked out.
But that shouldn’t stop House and Senate lawmakers from negotiating a compromise between the two versions, according to congressional aides.
The real issue, of course, is whether they’ll split the difference in funding or just take the higher of the two numbers. The House may require some concessions so Republicans don’t lose too many of their members. But right now, the Senate has to be considered the side with the upper hand — because it’s the only bill with a broad coalition of support, not just the backing of one party.
There’s also this precedent to consider: In 2014, Congress went through a similar exercise with Ebola, when the Obama administration asked for $6 billion in emergency funds. It had to deal with a Republican House then, too, including many of the same lawmakers who are raising concerns about the national debt now.
The final amount approved by Congress: $5.4 billion.