WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats tried and failed Wednesday to expedite emergency funds to combat the Zika virus, stymied by Republicans who objected and tried to extract cuts to Obamacare as a condition for their agreement.
Using procedural tactics, Democrats tried to force two votes by unanimous consent: one to approve the $1.9 billion sought by the Obama administration, and another requesting to speed up passage of a $1.1 billion measure that senators backed Tuesday.
The moves were meant to pressure Republicans, and to once again put them on the record against the president’s larger emergency request to deal with the virus, which causes birth defects such as microcephaly and other ailments. It came one day after the Senate voted 68-29 to provide that $1.1 billion in emergency Zika funds as part of a larger spending bill for transportation, housing and military construction projects.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) took to the floor Wednesday to argue that the larger bill could easily get tied up in Congress' dysfunctional process, and be stalled until the fall -- well after the money will be needed. The Zika spending should be broken out, they argued.
“As the weather warms, the mosquitoes will multiply and people will be bitten by these vicious little insects,” Reid said. “The appropriations process -- to say it is slow is a gross understatement. We need to get this done now.”
Part of Democrats' concerns stem from the legislation House Republicans are currently considering -- $622 million redirected from previously authorized Ebola funds and other programs. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) argues that the House proposal should be seen as an addition to the roughly $600 million the White House has already transferred from its Ebola response.
In any case, the House and Senate proposals are different, and the Senate's is currently tied to a spending bill, which could require a conference committee process to work out the differences.
“So how are we going to take these things to conference when the House can’t even come up with a budget?” Reid said, tweaking Ryan for his inability to get his members in line behind even a basic annual fiscal blueprint.
After Reid’s request to push through the president’s full $1.9 billion was unsuccessful, Murray took a shot, calling for a vote on the $1.1 billion Zika deal she'd helped craft with Republicans, but as a standalone.
“There is no reason to keep it attached to the bill we’re on and allow House Republicans to slow-walk it,” Murray said. “And there’s no reason that this funding can’t be approved and signed into law next week, in time for summer and the peak of mosquito season.”
But Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) objected, and instead asked her to modify her request in a way that Republicans might prefer.
"Would the senator modify her request to include my language... which has the exact same funding levels... but includes a pay-for using the prevention fund in the Affordable Care Act?" Cornyn said, referring a part of Obamacare that aims to boost public health through preventive means, but that Republicans often target as a slush fund. (You can read more about the prevention fund here.)
Murray objected to Cornyn's counteroffer, noting that the prevention fund helps keep women and infants healthy -- one of her same goals in pushing emergency Zika funding.
"The agreement that the senator from Texas has just broached means that we're going to have to fight over cuts -- cuts to women, cuts to families, cuts to critical health care efforts in order to fight the Zika virus," Murray said. "That is objectionable."