Blunt: Senate Action on Zika Unlikely This Week; Need to Ensure Measure Would Pass House

The Senate is unlikely to act on a Zika supplement before next week’s recess, Sen. Roy Blunt, chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies  (R-Mo.) told reporters Tuesday.

Senators are working on a roughly $1.1 billion supplement for the Zika virus, he said. The willingness of the House to move forward on a bill is somewhat of a holdup, though he said senators are in general agreement about the appropriation.

“I think the House is not where we are yet in terms of dealing with this issue, and I’d like to see them get a little further along,” he said.

Blunt said he spent part of Tuesday morning talking to people on the House side about “the best way to get this bill actually on the president’s desk.” More information from the administration — such as how long the roughly $590 million that has been transferred from Ebola to respond to Zika will cover the costs of responding to the outbreak — would be helpful, Blunt said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Operations Subcommittee, told reporters Tuesday he hoped an agreement would be unveiled by the end of the week. He said he would support the United States Agency for International Development request and some of the request for the Department of Health and Human Services, though not the full $1.9 billion the administration wants.

Still, Republicans are starting to come around to understand the need to respond to the outbreak, he said.

“I think most people understand there’s a need for the spending and it should be emergency,” Graham said. “I think conceptually that’s where most people are at now.”

Blunt said he is also concerned about how to make sure an appropriations bill makes its way to the White House. He said it was hard to say whether a supplement would be a standalone bill or attached to another appropriations measure.

“Ideally you’d want to attach it to something that the House for sure would want to take up,” he said.

The House has moved toward funding to Zika more slowly than the Senate. Top appropriators say they have not heard a response from administration officials about their questions, though the White House maintains they have provided the information.

“As I’ve noted previously, there have been 48 open public hearings in Congress where questions about Zika have been answered by administration officials,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at Tuesday’s White House briefing. “If there are any unanswered questions about the strategy that the administration has put forward to fight Zika and protect the American people from Zika, I think it’s members of Congress themselves who are responsible for nothing answers to those questions.”

He added that he was unaware of any unanswered questions from lawmakers about Zika that had been asked of the administration.

Minority Leader Harry Reid, however, said he’s unaware of a deal.

“There is no deal,” he said. “I haven’t seen it, I don’t know who has seen it. We have an outline of it, but it’s not enough. We want $1.9 billion.”

However, he stopped short of saying Democrats would block a measure that wouldn’t fund the fund $1.9 billion request.

“Before we talk about settling, let them bring something to the floor,” Reid told reporters. “Right now, there is nothing before us other than the request from the president. When they bring something to the floor we’ll take a look at it.”

Reid has said the Senate shouldn’t adjourn for next week’s recess until the chamber takes up a measure to respond to the outbreak. Other Democrats said Republicans delayed bringing up a Zika bill.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Congress was “playing catch-up” because Republicans delayed acting on the administration’s request. And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he thought a Zika bill would pass if it was offered on the floor.

“It actually costs a little money to deal with national emergencies like Zika,” he said. “Enough already.”