WASHINGTON — The Senate failed Tuesday to advance a Republican-negotiated plan to fund the US response to the Zika virus, leaving no end in sight for the Zika funding fight in Congress that has dragged on for more than four months.
The procedural vote failed 52 to 48, 126 days after President Obama first requested a $1.9 billion package to address the virus. It needed 60 votes to advance.
The failure leaves the Zika funding effort in an increasingly bitter standoff. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said after the vote that he would bring the measure up again after the long July 4 weekend.
But GOP leaders do not appear willing to reopen negotiations on the Zika funding proposal, and Democrats showed Tuesday that they would not support the $1.1 billion deal reached by House and Senate Republicans. With mosquito season in full swing, both parties resorted to attacking the other over the impasse.
“I’d like to call on my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to think about this, to think about where they have left this issue for the American people,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “So when we get back after we’ve had some time to think about it all, we’ll address this matter again.”
Senate Democrats derided the GOP plan as a partisan proposal filled with poison pills because it included spending cuts to the Affordable Care Act and a provision meant to stop funding for Planned Parenthood.
“What we want them to do is negotiate. We’re willing to compromise,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters after the vote. “What they’re doing is going to kill any chance of Zika, and anyone who thinks that is not the case, just look at the words Planned Parenthood. That has been a poison pill on every issue.”
Republicans, meanwhile, tried to shift the blame to the Democrats, arguing that the final bill has the same funding level that Senate Democrats already endorsed when they voted for the original Senate bill — and that the House has already moved in their direction.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas called the Democratic minority “a sore loser” on the floor after Tuesday’s vote while standing alongside a poster of a baby with microcephaly, the birth defect linked to Zika that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads.
“Today, Democrats have a choice: continue pushing thinly veiled partisan arguments and block the Zika control funding, or join with us to advance a serious solution and send critical funding to the president’s desk right now,” McConnell said in a floor speech shortly before the vote.
Congress has now left itself a narrow window to pass a Zika funding bill before its long August break. Lawmakers will leave Washington in mid-July ahead of their party’s presidential conventions and won’t return until after Labor Day.
In the meantime, public health officials are emphasizing the need for action. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that without more funding from Congress, several parts of its Zika response could be delayed or put on hold. Those activities include conducting studies on how the virus causes birth defects and tracking the spread of mosquitoes across the country.
But without any changes to the proposal before the next vote, the same outcome seems likely. Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the GOP leadership, demurred when asked if the GOP would be willing to undertake talks again.
Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat, told STAT that Republicans had given no indication that they would be open to continuing talks on the issue.
“They’re just not living in the real world,” he said, “and they’re not facing the fact that this is a real emergency.”
Frustrations were equally high on the other side of the aisle.
“It’s not good,” said Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “If you can’t come together on an issue of public health and safety, a disease, whose impact we have seen graphically, you start to wonder if you can do it on anything.”
The original Senate-passed bill, negotiated by Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, had provided $1.1 billion for Zika with no accompanying spending cuts. But the House had fully paid for its $622 million plan with spending cuts, and the final deal negotiated by House and Senate Republicans included $750 million in cuts to offset the $1.1 billion in funding. Even if the Senate had approved the new funding plan, the White House has pledged that Obama would veto it.
Shortly after the vote, a coalition of 30 health organizations sent a letter to congressional leadership urging them to scrap the GOP plan and start negotiating a new funding bill. Senate Democrats were urging the same course.
“Hopefully calmer heads will prevail now, and we can go back and do a bipartisan bill and do our job,” Murray said.
But she declined to comment when asked if there had been any sign from Republicans that they would do so.