Senate Compromise on Zika Funds in the Works

     WASHINGTON (CN) -The Senate is poised to pass a $1.1 billion funding package to help combat the spread of the Zika virus.
     A package the Senate advanced Tuesday falls short of the $1.9 billion in special funds President Barack Obama asked for in February to halt the spread of the disease.
     Republicans justified this shortfall by noting the spending package eliminates parts of the request, like new building construction, not directly related to the emergency.
     “It really does look carefully at what the administration proposed and eliminates the things that aren’t part of an emergency response to Zika,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who was one of the lawmakers who put forward the spending package.
     The Zika virus can spread through mosquito bites and sexual contact and more than 1,100 people have contracted it in the United States and its territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
     The disease has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that causes infants to be born with abnormally small heads and can cause developmental delays and even death.
     The package is contained in an amendment to the Transportation, Highway and Urban Development appropriations bill the Senate has been debating since Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters he expects the appropriations bill to pass later this week, along with the Zika funding.
     Blunt’s amendment, co-signed by Washington Democrat Sen. Patty Murray, was the third Zika funding amendment voted on Tuesday afternoon. The first, offered by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., would have fully funded Obama’s request, but Democrats could not convince enough Republicans to jump to their side and the amendment died by a 50-47 vote.
     The second, from Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, would have given the White House the same amount as the Blunt amendment, but would have taken the money from a fund set aside in the president’s health care law. Democrats struck down this amendment 52-45 with the vote falling on party lines.
     Blunt’s amendment was a compromise between the two proposals and Senate Democrats promised to push for more money if the crisis worsens.
     “We view the Senate plan as a down payment in the battle against Zika, not the full amount,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters before the vote.
     The Senate ended debate on the amendment Tuesday and by rule will have to wait up to 30 hours before formally approving it.
     The $1.1 billion would fund the fight against the virus through next September, at which time a Zika vaccine could be available, Blunt said.
     Republicans in the House and Senate initially pushed back on letting Obama’s full request flow without a clear sense of where it would be spent. Some Congressional Republicans floated the idea of taking some of the left over cash tagged to combat the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, a move the White House agreed to take in April.
     While Democrats have repeatedly hit Republicans for shortchanging the administration on Zika, especially with the Ebola stopgap, Blunt said the move bought Congress time to comb through the administration’s proposal trim it down to the amount the Senate moved forward on Tuesday.
     “No one should think that spending money on Zika has been held back because the Congress is just now moving forward with a specific piece of legislation,” Blunt said.
     The House is advancing a separate, smaller Zika package this week, which could threaten the agreement the Senate advanced Tuesday when the two deals come to conference if they pass.
     Both parties agreed the Senate bill is better than the House alternative and Democrats insisted the fight over Obama’s full funding request is not over.
     “Were going to take $1.1 billion if that’s all we can get at this point, but we are going to fight for more,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said.

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