Congress’ months-long standoff over funding needed to combat the rapidly-spreading Zika virus may be close to its breaking point.
For months, the White House has been asking Congress to approve a $1.9 billion dollar funding package to prepare for the battle against Zika. While public health experts and lawmakers have emphasized the importance of acting now, spending-averse conservatives in Congress have delayed. That is, until now.
On Tuesday, the Senate advanced a $1.1 billion funding bill that will prepare states for the looming mosquito-transmitted epidemic and expand national efforts to create a vaccine. Though the proposed spending package is millions less than the amount originally requested by the White House, it has bipartisan support among Senate leaders. Meanwhile, the House introduced its own bill on Monday, proposing shifting a meager $622 million of existing funding toward Zika — an insulting offer to House Democrats.
It’s unclear how — or when — the two chambers will be able to come to an agreement.
It could take weeks to get a finalized bill to President Obama’s desk — and that’s if Congress can settle on a bill between multiple recesses. With the U.S. on the cusp of mosquito season, many public health experts fear government funding won’t come until it’s too late.
Why We Need The Money — Now
Public health experts have repeatedly warned of the looming threat of mosquito-transmitted Zika, the disease that’s left thousands of newborn infants with severe brain abnormalities.
Many of these fears rest in the virus’ frightening unknowns. Doctors have only just discovered a way to test blood samples for Zika, but there’s no known vaccine or cure for the virus — and little research to pull new analysis from. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms that Zika can be transmitted through sex with a man and that a woman’s fetus can be affected by the disease at any stage of pregnancy. But the majority of online informational forms found on the CDC’s website are split into two sections: “What We Know” and “What We Don’t Know.” And the list of unknowns is usually longer.
“We don’t know if a pregnant woman contracts Zika but doesn’t have symptoms, if that’s going to be a problem,” said Marcia Castro, associate professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “There are a lot of unknowns, which a little bit ties our hands about what we can do.”
One known, however, is the fact that funding for finance research and preventative care is crucial to protecting public health. With over 500 confirmed cases in the U.S., state health departments are scrambling to gather the little funds they have to prepare for a potential onslaught of the virus. Lawmakers in southern states when Zika has already hit have become increasingly outspoken about the need for funding.
Some, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), have shed their typical political stance in the face of a health crisis.
“I hope that there is real urgency about dealing with this,” Rubio said in a Senate floor speech earlier this month. “There is no such thing as a Republican position on Zika or Democrat position on Zika because these mosquitoes bite everyone.”
But with most Republicans in Congress deeply resistant to appropriating new funds, Congress has instead grabbed state and county-level public health funds as a band-aid solution to national Zika defense. Public health officials are left in wait until national lawmakers pass some solidified funding package.
What This Money Will Do
Earlier this year, Republicans convinced the White House to reallocate $589 million in existing federal funds to fight the virus’ spread. This meant pulling funding from state health preparedness programs and Ebola prevention efforts — without any payback promise.
The Senate’s bipartisan package, however, won’t draw on any more finances already included in the national budget. The majority of proposed funding would be additional money for the Department of Health and Human Services to improve state prevention efforts — whether that’s providing homes with mosquito nets, breaking access barriers to free contraception, or purchasing necessary lab equipment to test for Zika. The rest will go toward broad international aid and vaccine development.
“It’s a targeted approach that focuses on immediate needs while also providing resources for longer-term goals like a vaccine,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-KY). “[It] represents a notable departure from our Democratic colleagues’ initial position.”
McConnell made sure the Senate funding package wasn’t simply a replica of Obama’s $1.9 billion proposal. The bill lacks significant pieces of the White House’s initial ask, like the intent to help Puerto Rico expand their Medicaid coverage — a tool that could give the debt-ridden territory a shot at actually battling the virus. But bipartisan agreement is crucial in getting any sort of funding to those in need.
Why Congress Has Delayed
As with most congressional stand-offs, this long journey to approval comes down to finances. Republicans are opposed to spending any additional money to push the country further into debt — and are yet to be convinced that Zika will really impact the United States. Democrats, on the other hand, see Zika’s northern creep as both a national and global crisis, and don’t feel comfortable doing the bare minimum to fight an unpredictable epidemic.
“Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). “Cutting back on this money for pregnant women and running the risk that a baby born with a lifetime of medical challenges and expenses is no savings.”
Yet Congress remains divided. The bipartisan support in the Senate has taken months to rein in — but has yet to spark a similar response in the House. House Republicans have stood by their opposition to extra funding, and their proposed $622 million funding bill has little in common with the Senate’s.
Quite frankly, that’s just not going to cut it.
The House’s legislation has frustrated even some Republicans. “Quite frankly, that’s just not going to cut it,” said Sen. Rubio after the Monday announcement. “I believe the House can and should do better than what it’s proposed.”
The White House has already said they’d advise President Obama to veto the House’s bill.
“It is woefully insufficient given the significant risk that is posed by Zika,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “The House of Representatives is three months late and more than a billion short.”
The overarching split between the two chambers calls for additional negotiations and compromising that could take weeks to remedy — weeks that the country doesn’t have to spare in the face of Zika.