- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2016

A spending package to fight the mosquito-borne Zika virus is mired in partisan gridlock, with Senate Democrats saying Monday they “have no choice” but to sink the $1.1 billion measure because it swipes money from Obamacare and the Ebola fight and bars any of it from flowing to Planned Parenthood.

The standoff comes four months after President Obama requested nearly $2 billion to combat Zika, which causes serious birth defects, and as mosquitoes begin to bite on the U.S. mainland, sparking fears of local transmission.

Mr. Obama has threatened to veto the Republican-driven funding deal, which cleared the House last week but faces a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, will need at least six Democrats to support the package for it to advance in a key test vote Tuesday. He implored critics Monday to reconsider their opposition, saying Senate Democrats had a place at the negotiating table and got the spending level they backed early on, but are now “changing their tune.”

“The agreement before us is a compromise with input from both parties, and it represents the last chance we’ll have to address Zika for weeks,” he said.

The Senate is running out of time to act on Zika and its other priority — a bill to pull Puerto Rico from its debt crisis — before it breaks for the mid-July conventions.

After months of public feuding between GOP leaders and the Obama administration, Republican leaders brushed aside a Democratic sit-in over guns early Thursday and ushered the Zika funding measure to House passage, 239-171, as part of a broader spending bill on military construction and veterans programs.

The White House immediately balked, however, saying it still wanted nearly $2 billion to fight Zika and backfill more than $500 million it shifted away from Ebola.

Instead, the GOP-authored package offsets $750 million of its $1.1 billion in spending by taking $107 million more from the Ebola fight, $100 million in unspent administrative funding from the Health and Human Services Department and $543 million in Obamacare funding that had been earmarked for territories to set up web-based insurance exchanges.

Republicans said they did the responsible thing by finding ways to cover the spending instead of adding to the deficit.

But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the bill is “missing $800 million” and has too many “poison-pill” add-ons, such as barring Planned Parenthood from getting the type of funding that community health centers would receive and temporarily rolling back pesticide rules to kill mosquitoes.

“It’s like we’re being dared to oppose this legislation,” he said. “We have no choice.”

The White House reiterated its opposition Monday, saying the only way out of the impasse is for House Republicans to “stop playing games”

“That they have unfortunately turned a public health emergency into political football,” White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said.

Some Florida Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, bucked their party and supported Mr. Obama’s full request from the start, though the former GOP presidential contender on Monday said the existing offer was “better than not doing anything.”

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican whose state is at higher risk than most of Zika transmission, said he hopes “cooler heads will prevail and our colleagues will vote to support it.”

The Centers for Disease Control has recorded more than 750 travel-related cases of Zika in the 50 states and D.C., a handful of them through sexual transmission, though experts say the virus could puncture the mainland further once summer ramps up and Aedes mosquitoes flourish.

U.S. territories have reported more than 1,850 cases of Zika by mosquito bite, mostly in Puerto Rico.

The territory is already reeling from $72 billion in bond debt it cannot pay, forcing it to slash health services while it waits for Congress to finish work on a rescue bill that imposes a fiscal oversight board and provides the island a road map for restructuring its debts.

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew told the Senate to take up and pass the Puerto Rico rescue bill before the island territory faces default on a $2 billion bond payment Friday.

“The Senate should take up the matter immediately. Delay will only jeopardize the ability of Congress to conclude its work before July 1, a critical deadline Puerto Rico’s leadership has publicly highlighted for months,” Mr. Lew wrote to Mr. McConnell.

The House passed the rescue bill in early June, and Mr. McConnell has moved to take it up this week. Some Democrats have said they want to amend the bill and send it back to the House, which is in recess until July 5, though the majority leader took steps late Monday to avert that scenario.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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