Lawmakers are not just divided over the levels of funding. They also disagree over how Zika should be funded. House Republicans are proud of the fact that their $622 million bill—one-third of the Obama administration’s request—has offsets built in. It siphons money from leftover Ebola funds and other programs to fund Zika through the end of this fiscal year, which ends in September. They say the roughly $600 million already diverted from Ebola coffers has worked well to tie public-health efforts over, and they plan to offer more money in next year’s appropriations package. The Senate’s bill, which would carry into the next fiscal year, is not offset at all.
The conferees that spoke Wednesday, all senior appropriators, were warm and congenial as they laid out top-line goals. Or rather, what seemed to be one goal: to finish their work rapidly. “With mosquito season upon us, these Zika dollars must go out the door now to help control the spread of this disease,” Rogers said. “In addition, funds are needed immediately to continue long-term efforts to stop the disease such as vaccine and treatment development and deployment.”
The debate has taken on even more urgency than before with the arrival of summer, which brings the mosquitoes that play vector for the Zika virus. So far the continental United States has seen hundreds of travel-related cases, but no local transmission. Local transmission is inevitable, though, with warm, densely populated cities like Miami at greatest risk. U.S. territories already have it. Public-health officials will work to contain any outbreaks in the continental states, but they are wary. Officials have long insisted that congressional delays hamper research planning and on-the-ground preparation to contain transmission, along with other ill effects. “Mosquitoes don’t know when the fiscal year ends,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden told Florida lawmakers at a meeting Wednesday. “This is going to be around for a long time.”
The other deadline looming over lawmakers is Congress’s nearly two-month-long recess this summer, which starts in mid-July. It’s the Senate’s longest in decades, a product of late July’s presidential conventions. Lawmakers are reportedly looking to wrap up Zika funding by the end of this month. Background talks had already started by the time lawmakers convened, but formal negotiations are another animal.
It’s not entirely clear to what degree conferees will concede, particularly House Republicans, whose caucus contains some of the most fiscally hawkish members on the Hill. In an email ahead of the session, Rogers’s spokeswoman said the House bill is his “starting position” and represents what House Republican conferees would be pushing for; though after the meeting was over, his goals looked a bit more muddled.