Lawmakers are likely to be talking about Zika funding well into the summer, as mosquito season gets into full swing in the continental United States and as researchers continue to learn more about the virus’s effects, which only seem to grow more frightening. The White House has asked Congress to pass funding before Memorial Day, but the Associated Press noted last week that July is more realistic. Earlier this spring, at House Republicans’ urging, the White House repurposed more than $600 million in Ebola funds for Zika as it waited for funding from Congress.
Legislators across both chambers have insisted that funding Zika is a priority, but have split on how to follow through. Many Republicans believe the Obama request is far too much, and have insisted on appropriating money through corresponding budget cuts or leftover Ebola funds. They do not want to give the Obama administration much leeway on how to use the money, nor do they want the White House to have any extra cash. Tom Cole, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that handles health agencies, summed up the question facing lawmakers in an interview last week: “Do you pay for this thing out of existing accounts, out of savings, out of reprogramming—or do you just add $1.9 billion to the national debt with no offset whatsoever?” Republican Senator John Cornyn proposed similar reprogramming when he introduced a $1.1 billion proposal using money from an Affordable Care Act fund.
Democrats supported the Senate compromise, as well as a separate measure to fully fund the White House request. Neither that $1.9 billion proposal nor Coryn’s passed Tuesday. The compromise amendment, which does not require any corresponding budget cuts, will be attached to a transportation-funding package.
Now that the chamber has voted for the compromise, which Murray and Blunt announced on Thursday after weeks of talks, attention will shift to the House. If House Republicans’ proposal, released Monday, is any sign, conservatives will try to shrink the Senate’s allocation closer to its own. Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers announced a $622 million bill that gives the administration one-third of the money it asked for, funded in part by money left over from Ebola. If both chambers pass divergent Zika bills, lawmakers will have to reconcile them and send just one to the president for his approval.
Marco Rubio, the only Republican who publicly advocated for the administration’s request, and who co-sponsored the $1.9 billion Senate bill with fellow Floridian Bill Nelson, suggested Tuesday on the floor that he sympathizes with fellow Republicans who do not want to add to the deficit. But he pressed the importance of legislators moving quickly. “I don’t think we should be delaying action while we try to figure out these budgetary moves,” he said. Rubio was reportedly one of five Republican senators to vote “yes” on the $1.9 billion bill.