Zika Conference on Tap, Which Could Delay Congress’ Response

Blunt says the House and Senate will hold a formal conference committee on Zika. (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

It could take until well into the summer, or even longer, for Congress to actually pass a final spending bill to combat the Zika virus. Top Senate and House negotiators plan to confine a formal conference committee to hash out their differences that they hope can be sent to President Obama before the July recess. But there are some crucial differences between the two efforts that will need to be reconciled within that time.

The Senate on Tuesday advanced a provision to provide more than a billion dollars to fight the Zika virus, and the House is slated to vote on its smaller version later this week.

The Senate response, which advanced as an amendment to a separate spending package in a 68-29 vote, would provide $1.1 billion in emergency funds to go toward Zika. The House bill has been criticized by Democrats because it only provides $622 million in previously appropriated funds, some of which was designated to fight the Ebola virus.

The Senate effort would provide funds through fiscal year 2017, while funding in the House bill would expire after this September.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who is leading the Senate’s Zika effort with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), said the two key issues that need to be reconciled in conference are the length of funding and whether the funding is offset.

But it’s unclear how much give-and-take House Republicans will be willing to engage in during the conference. Rep. Tom Cole, a key player on the issue and a moderate among House Republicans, told Morning Consult that he hopes the Senate embraces the House bill.

The Oklahoma Republican said the House’s bill is “superior” to the Senate version because it includes offsets. “We just think the real difference here is not even the amount of money, [but] whether you pay for it or not that’s really the issue here,” he said.

Cole noted that while the funding in the House bill expires after this fiscal year, the chamber plans to pass additional funding for Zika in the annual appropriations process. The biggest issue for the upcoming conference committee, according to Cole, is whether the compromise bill will be offset.

House Republicans are adamant that the funding must come from somewhere else in the federal budget.

The White House has threatened to veto the House bill and Democrats and some Republicans have criticized it for being too chintzy.

“That’s just not going to cut it and if we don’t spend more than that on the front end. I think we’re going to spend a lot more later on because the problem is certainly not going to go away,” Sen. Marco Rubio said Tuesday of the House bill. The Floridian is one of the only Republicans who supports the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion request to fight Zika.

Blunt said even if Congress is unable to reach a compromise before the July recess, it should not be a reason for panic because the White House has already shifted $510 million in funds from fighting Ebola to fighting Zika.

“Even if this does take a few more weeks for us to arrive at a final conclusion with the House that shouldn’t lead anybody to believe that anything has happened that wouldn’t have been happening if we’d agreed the very first day as to what the exact amount should have been,” Blunt told reporters on Tuesday.