(Bloomberg) — Senate Republican leaders entered this week hoping to act quickly to fight the Zika virus, but ran into internal feuding and now face the prospect of political fallout in election battleground states like Florida.
Talks with Democrats on an emergency spending package stalled and lawmakers now anticipate doing nothing before they leave on a one-week recess at the end of the week. Republican leaders say they will bring a bill to the Senate floor at some point as they continue to negotiate on the details, but it remains unclear when and how such a measure would advance.
Republicans had been slow to address an Obama administration request in February for $1.9 billion to prevent a Zika outbreak, but evidence that the virus is spreading faster than originally feared has injected new urgency into the debate.
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The White House said Tuesday that there are now 891 confirmed cases of Zika in the U.S., including 81 pregnant women, as of April 20. The disease has been linked to serious birth defects.
“To properly protect the American public, and in particular pregnant women and their newborns, Congress must fund the administration’s request of $1.9 billion and find a path forward to address this public health emergency immediately,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan and National Security Adviser Susan Rice wrote Tuesday in a letter to Republican leaders.
They urged Congress to act before the Memorial Day recess. Democrats plan to keep the pressure on. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California will join Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid at a joint press conference Wednesday afternoon to pressure Republicans to act on Zika.
The initial decision by Senate appropriators to pursue the additional funding on the Senate floor this week ran into resistance by conservatives, particularly in the House, to granting emergency spending.
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Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican appropriator on health issues, told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol he’s close to agreement with Democrats on a $1.1 billion package but is talking with the House to see what can move quickly to the president’s desk.
“I think the House is not where we are yet in terms of dealing with this issue,” the Missouri Republican said, adding he doesn’t anticipate any action before lawmakers leave town at the end of the week.
“There is no deal; we want $1.9 billion,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest also ripped Republicans, saying administration officials have already answered lawmakers’ questions in 48 hearings about Zika.
“I don’t think their constituents are going to find it an acceptable response when there is a widespread media freakout about the Zika virus that Republicans haven’t acted becausethey didn’t get their questions answered,” he said Tuesday.
For many Republicans, the political calculus on Zika appears to be changing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that about 30 states — many in the deep-red South — may have the mosquito capable of spreading the virus.
Leading the charge for Republicans is Sen. Marco Rubio, back from his unsuccessful presidential run, who started pushing for funding, with his home state of Florida potentially one of the most impacted.
“The more, the better, sooner,” he said Monday. “We’ve got to get ahead of it.”
Rubio doesn’t begrudge senators wanting to scrutinize the spending, but said time isn’t on their side.