It’s the 11th Hour and Congress Still Bargaining Over Zika Funding; Nation’s Health Lies In The Balance

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Congressional negotiators on Monday pressed to wrap up a must-do spending bill to prevent an election-season government shutdown and finally provide money to battle the threat of the Zika virus, but numerous sticking points remain, says the Associated Press.

The stopgap measure would keep the government running past the end of the budget year this month. It’s the only measure that has to pass before Congress adjourns for Election Day. As such, the talks have been thorny, with Republicans controlling Congress battling Democrats and the Obama administration.

The $1 billion-plus to fight the mosquito-borne #ZikaVirus is months overdue Click To Tweet

A controversy involving whether Planned Parenthood should be eligible for anti-Zika funding in Puerto Rico–which sparked a Democratic blockade of an earlier measure–appears to have been defused, lawmakers and aides say. But unrelated controversies over pesticide regulations, spending cuts and limitations on how many hours long-haul truckers can drive remain unresolved.

Top Senate leaders had hoped to seal an agreement Monday in time for a procedural vote slated for early evening, but talks over the weekend failed to produce progress, aides briefed on the talks said. The procedural vote has already been postponed once, and it’s now past 8pm Eastern Time and it’s still not clear whether a vote will occur tonight.

The $1 billion-plus to fight the mosquito-borne Zika virus is months overdue. Republicans were slow to act on Obama’s February request and then sparked a confusing, messy situation with Democrats by restricting new health grants for Puerto Rico to entities like public health providers and hospitals, a step that Republicans acknowledge was aimed at ensuring Planned Parenthood was ineligible to receive any funds. A proposed solution would move the money to different accounts and make sure Planned Parenthood remains eligible to receive it, according the AP.

Another proposal would temporarily ease pesticide spraying rules from Clean Water Act requirements for permits. Supporters say the permits are duplicative since pesticides are generally regulated by a different environmental law, but the idea is opposed by the administration, which says it’s an assault on environmental laws.

Democrats also are opposed to pairing the Zika money with spending cuts intended to try to pay for it. Other disasters, like floods and emergency wildfire funds, haven’t required such offsetting cuts, and Democrats don’t want to set the precedent.

But House conservatives insist on cuts, otherwise known in Congressional parlance as “offsets,” and Democrats are willing to accept some–especially those that are painless, such as erasing money that wouldn’t be spent anyway under arcane budget rules. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is keen to send vulnerable incumbents such as Kelly Ayotte (R-NY) and Richard Burr (R-NC) back to their states to campaign.

Any measure that’s going to prevent a shutdown on Oct. 1 will need the support of Democrats and a signature from President Barack Obama, and McConnell is better positioned to take the reins since he has a less belligerent group of Republicans than House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

On Saturday, Obama used his radio address to pressure Congress, listing unresolved business such as the emergency Zika money, aid to flood-ravaged Louisiana and Flint, MI, hit by lead-contaminated water, and the ignored Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland.

“If any of these priorities matter to you, let your congressperson know,” Obama said. “And if they still refuse to do their jobs–well, you know what to do in November. Our government only works as well as the people we elect. And that’s entirely up to you.”

Steve’s Take: Well, better late than never. President Obama has now joined CDC Director Tom Frieden and countless other experts, speaking specifically about the horrifying flight path of the mounting Zika onslaught here. On Saturday he said to the American people:

“if they (Congress) refuse to do their jobs–well, you know what to do in November.”

Apparently content, thus far, to play politics-as-usual while the evidence of an impending US epidemic mounts, Congress is showing some forbidding signs that the big, protracted battle over Zika funding actually might not end before the recess 12 days hence.

Several Republicans have said it appeared increasingly likely that a clean bill–without restrictions on Plan Parenthood–would eventually be approved by both chambers of Congress. “That’s where we’re headed,” said one senior Republican in leadership. But House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office has consistently struck a more cautious tone saying:

“No decisions have been made by House Republicans, and the discussions will continue.”

Although a bipartisan consensus to fund the government through mid-December seems to be emerging, some House tea party conservatives are totally opposed and want a longer duration for the measure to avert a lame-duck session of Congress. And Senate Republicans, in particular, are eager to return home given they are defending 24 seats this election cycle and want to be as visible as possible in their districts.

Ryan has set forth various options that will keep the government open, while also voicing a preference to move smaller funding bills that avoid passing a major, omnibus bill by year’s end. Importantly, however, he has not specified his personal preference for resolving the Zika deadlock. That has been and still is worrisome in that as difficult as it is to contemplate, the Zika funding issue may once again fall to partisan bickering and finger pointing.

A new poll found strong public support for more taxpayer dollars to fight the mosquito-borne virus. Three-quarters of Americans say increased federal research funding is necessary to prevent Zika’s continued spread, according to the poll by the March of Dimes and NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago.

As I’ve said on numerous occasions, the $800 million difference in Obama’s request and the GOP’s counter is a mere $800 million–exactly 0.013% of our national defense budget. Isn’t the Zika fight akin to warfare to defend the lives of our citizenry? Especially our yet-to-be-born children?

In gauging Congress’s apparent lack of comprehension of what’s at stake with funding the war on Zika, CDC Director Frieden recently said, “I think we’ll look at this delay in time and say, ‘How could they have waited so long?’ This was so urgent. It was the very definition of an emergency. Not only is this unanticipated, it’s unprecedented. It’s potentially catastrophic, and it’s certainly that for the kind of brain damage we’re seeing.”

Frieden noted that it is extremely unusual to have a new cause for a severe birth defect and that the healthcare system will be grappling with the effects of Zika for years to come.

“We don’t know what congenital Zika syndrome will look like,” Frieden said. “We will likely be dealing with this for decades to come.”

The long-term cost of caring for a child with severe birth defects can be $10 million or more, Frieden said.

We need action, and we need it now. The clock is ticking and there are just a handful of days left before Congress departs Capitol Hill again. The spread of the Zika epidemic is progressing on its own clock, not the one Congress keeps. This would seem obvious.

Steve's Take: I wouldn't bet on #Congress passing #ZikaVirus funding anytime soon Click To Tweet

But nothing is guaranteed (including the application of common sense) in our two-party structure where partisanship rules the day. Even where the Nation’s health–our very children’s health–absolutely hangs in the balance.

I hope I awake in the morning with news of a Zika funding measure that’s adequate to afford us some protection, even despite the absurd, protracted, disgraceful delay on Capitol Hill. But I’m not betting on it.