Why Congress isn't helping Florida deal with Zika

In a polarized era, members of Congress often compromise to strike deals only when public demand is overwhelming. On Zika, that point hasn't come yet – but might soon. 

Lynne Sladky/AP
Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida speaks during a news conference about the Zika virus Wednesday in Doral, Fla.

The members of Congress had promised. They wouldn't break for summer recess until they passed an anti-Zika funding package.

Then they went on summer recess. Without passing an anti-Zika funding package.

Pointedly, a National Institutes of Health official was asked last week: Should Congress be brought back? Unsurprisingly, he demurred, but not without a plea. 

“We are getting to that point, very, very soon, where we’re going to run out of the money that we’ve borrowed from ourselves,” said Anthony Fauci, an infectious diseases specialist, at a forum by the Bipartisan Policy Center. The politics blocking the funding is “very, very frustrating to us who are nonpolitical people.” 

The answer to why Congress has failed to pass a funding measure reveals the typical roadblocks – partisan differences over spending and policy specifics. The frustration is over the urgency. The problem is not your average one. Dr. Fauci calls the Zika virus a “pandemic in progress.”

But without a public outcry with potential electoral consequences, those differences could not be bridged.

Now, the political climate might be starting to shift after Florida reported the first local transmission of the virus in the continental United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned pregnant women against traveling to Wynwood, a popular tourist destination in north Miami. 

With the health and tourism of Florida threatened, Zika is a bipartisan issue in the state. What’s still unclear is whether that will be enough to nudge Congress into action. 

“So long as Zika was a potential ‘future’ health crisis, stalemate on funding wasn't politically problematic. With Zika now spreading in the US, pressure mounts on the GOP to find a bicameral solution,” says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, in an email.

Building bipartisan pressure

This week, Florida’s Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson wrote Sen. majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky proposing a parliamentary maneuver around the funding impasse. 

On Tuesday, Florida's Republican Sen. Marco Rubio had a phone call with Senator McConnell about it. The leader is keen to see Senator Rubio reelected to the Senate in order to keep GOP control of the chamber, notes Ms. Binder. McConnell suggested the senator talk over a compromise with Republican leaders in the House, where the impasse is centered. 

More than 40 Senate Democrats have jumped on board, sending a letter to Republican leaders suggesting that they return to Washington to pass Zika funding. 

Even if Congress did reconvene early, a deal wouldn’t be easy, given the hugely divergent views on spending and policy between the GOP-controlled House and Senate, and between Republicans and Democrats – especially in a presidential election year.

Zika funding could have been passed fairly easily if it had just been a matter for the Republican-controlled Senate and the White House. Earlier this year, President Obama requested $1.9 billion to monitor the virus, control mosquitoes that carry it, and develop a vaccine, among other things. 

Senate Republicans thought that was too much. They struck a compromise with Democrats on the dollar amount, and in May senators approved $1.1 billion in Zika funding by a vote of 89 to 8.

But funding went off the rails in the House. There, staunch conservatives must be satisfied, especially as the speaker continues the practice of passing most legislation only if it has a majority of Republican support. 

The House produced a very different bill: only $622 million, with all the money offset by cuts in Ebola funding and other areas. The two bills went to conference to iron out the differences. 

While House Republicans did agree to come up to the Senate’s $1.1 billion, they upped the offsets to $750 million and threw in provisions that appealed to their base: taking unused money from the Affordable Care Act, temporarily rolling back clean water regulations to allow for more insecticide spraying, limiting access to contraceptives and Planned Parenthood, and dropping a Confederate flag provision that Democrats had in a related budget measure.

Emergency funding vs. offsets

Democrats, who consider this emergency funding, were incensed over the offsets and other provisions and so did not take part in the conferencing. They blocked the final bill worked out by Republicans in both chambers.

“In this particular instance, they included a number of positions that they had to know would be objectionable to Senate Democrats,” says Jim Manley, who was the spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada when he was Senate majority leader.

For his part, Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin used an op-ed in USA Today to criticize the White House for not spending all the money it has designated for Zika and Senate Democrats for blocking funding. The administration says domestic funding for Zika will be gone by the end of September.

It’s unlikely that members of Congress will leave the campaign trail to come back and deal with this issue, say Mr. Manley and others. Congress resumes work in Washington after Labor Day on Sept. 6. Even then, it’s hard to see how this issue is resolved absent greater pressure from the public – or perhaps from Donald Trump, for whom Florida is a key battleground state.

Continued stalemate is bound to disappoint Fauci, who says he can’t begin the second phase of trials on a vaccine in 2017 without more funding. Looking beyond Zika, he says what’s really needed is a preventive measure. He advocates for the creation of a health emergency fund, just like disaster funds for earthquakes and hurricanes. That would allow for quick response without the congressional stalemate, he said last week. 

“We can’t be chasing the problem. We have to be prepared for the problem.”

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