WASHINGTON — Seven months after President Obama first requested emergency funding to respond to the Zika crisis, an end to the congressional impasse over the money might finally be in sight. But first, the partisan politics are likely to stew for a little while longer.
According to congressional aides and lobbyists, Congress could tuck money for a Zika response into a funding bill that lawmakers must pass at the end of this month to keep the government open. A senior Senate Democratic aide described that scenario as “a decent bet.” One lobbyist called it “the general expectation” around Washington.
For health officials, the bad news is that Congress looks likely to wait until the last possible moment to pass a bill. And the unstated reason why is the same one that has kept the debate over Zika money mired on Capitol Hill for months: The virus isn’t viewed by the public as a big enough crisis to force lawmakers on either side of the aisle to back down.
Nearly 3,000 Zika cases have been diagnosed in the mainland United States, and more than 600 pregnant women have been infected. The virus is now spreading locally in the Miami area. Meantime, the White House has tried to bully the GOP majority into passing legislation, with everyone from Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to one of Obama’s closest advisers, Valerie Jarrett, sounding the alarm.
But outside the southern states seen as most vulnerable to Zika — and on the campaign trail in states where Zika-carrying mosquitoes aren’t prevalent — many of those warnings have been met with a shrug.
In a STAT-Harvard poll published last month, only 22 percent of Americans said they thought the virus was a major public health threat. Another 28 percent said it was a minor public health threat, and 39 percent said it was not a public health threat at all. Likewise, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that two-thirds of the public was not particularly worried about Zika.
That general ambivalence has allowed Republicans and Democrats to hold firm in their positions.
And, officially, they’re still stuck.
The Senate failed, again, Tuesday to advance the same $1.1 billion Zika funding package that fell short before lawmakers left for summer recess in July. Democrats blocked the bill, again, because they oppose provisions targeting Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans are, again, blaming Democrats for playing political games and protecting their special interests, though it was the GOP that added contentious provisions to help the bill clear the House. Democrats have argued that an emergency bill is no place for controversial policies — even if media fact-checkers have accused the minority of stretching the truth about the Planned Parenthood provision that they have cited to justify their opposition.
So it has been for the last two months.
But, in the end, the Republican majority has its own reasons for wanting the Zika funding impasse to end.
The STAT poll found that far more Americans blame Republicans for failing to pass a Zika funding bill (42 percent) than blame Democrats (22 percent) or both sides equally (17 percent). And while Zika isn’t likely to be a big campaign issue in, say, New Hampshire, the center of the response right now is Florida, which has a crucial Senate race with a Republican incumbent and some toss-up House contests this November.
Republicans could be on the electoral hook if Congress fails to approve funding and the crisis gets worse. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, has supported every Zika funding measure — even Obama’s original $1.9 billion proposal — but Democratic-leaning groups are nonetheless planning to attack him over the issue in campaign ads.
“It is a question if Republicans are going to fold or hold strong,” said another lobbyist, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “I think they took some real hits over the recess and, wanting to hold the Senate, they may be willing to fold into” a bigger government spending bill. That would put the issue to rest without the GOP majority having to make a politically embarrassing reversal on the standalone bill.
Seven months later, it looks like that’s how this ends.