Senate to Adjourn Without Addressing Zika Funding

Life Sciences Law & Industry Report connects the dots among the many disciplines that make up the burgeoning life sciences industry, with biweekly updates on current regulatory, legislative,...

By Nathaniel Weixel

July 14 — A $1.1 billion funding package (H.R. 2577) to combat the spread of the Zika virus failed to advance in the Senate July 14 after Democrats blocked the measure.

It was the second time Democrats have blocked the measure, which was anticipated after the Senate tried and failed to pass the spending plan June 28 (10 LSLR 14, 7/8/16). Following the first vote, lawmakers spent the better part of two weeks pointing fingers at one another. The vote was Congress's last opportunity before leaving town for a seven-week recess to send new money to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health to aid their work on stopping the spread of Zika.

The July 14 procedural vote failed 52-44. It required 60 votes to advance. Senate Democrats decried the inclusion of “poison pill” riders in the House-passed measure, including new restrictions on Planned Parenthood funding to clinics in Puerto Rico and cuts to the Affordable Care Act. They also objected to budget offsets in the plan.

Political Differences

Federal health officials and advocacy groups have been writing letters to lawmakers, urging them to come to an agreement before leaving for the summer. Officials have said funding for projects like vaccine trials will run out without new money. Democrats had called for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republicans to return to the negotiating table, but McConnell has insisted the conference report can't be amended.

Democrats, including administration officials, also offered Republicans a new deal, where they would agree to some offsets if Republicans would strike the provisions about the ACA and Planned Parenthood clinics. Republicans rebuffed that offer.

“They refused not only to accept it, they refused to meet to discuss it,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told reporters. Durbin said McConnell has indicated the House has forced his hand by demanding the Planned Parenthood language be included.

Republicans say the Democrats previously agreed to a $1.1 billion spending package in the Senate and are now backtracking. The Senate passed $1.1 billion in emergency funding—through the end of FY 2017—in May as a bipartisan amendment to a military spending bill. However, Democrats said the final conference report didn't include any of their input, and indicated they were prepared to pin any future spread of the Zika virus squarely on Republicans and their insistence on controversial policy provisions.

“Democrats’ vote against Zika funding is a shameful display of politics at its worst, and it is putting the health of all Americans, particularly mothers and their unborn babies, at risk,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in a statement. “The conference agreement was made through good-faith negotiations, with extensive participation and input from Democrats. It is a targeted response that would provide real help, right now, to manage the current outbreak and prevent another epidemic. It is absolutely unconscionable for Democrats to continue standing in the way.”

Blunt was a member of the House-Senate conference committee on the Zika legislation, and helped broker the initial bipartisan Senate compromise with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Appropriators' Letter

Following the vote, House and Senate Republican appropriators sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging the administration to continue to use available funds that were allocated in the fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill.

“If Senate Democrats continue to block consideration of Zika legislation, we urge you to aggressively use funds already available to mount a strong defense against the virus,” the letter said. “We also note that the fiscal year 2016 appropriations bills allow the Administration access to additional funds.”

Congress has supported “re-prioritization of existing resources” for Zika response, but there are reports the administration has only spent about one-sixth of that funding, the letter said.

The letter was signed by Sens. Blunt, Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Reps. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Kay Granger (R-Texas), who are all leaders of their chambers’ Appropriations committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over Zika matters.

The secretary of health and human services has transfer authority that can be used as an additional source for Zika preparedness, the lawmakers wrote. They noted the previous HHS secretary “did not hesitate to use this authority to support the failing Affordable Care Act exchanges.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nathaniel Weixel in Washington at nweixel@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brian Broderick at bbroderick@bna.com

For More Information

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.