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Congress sends short-term spending bill with Zika funding to Obama

Congress on Wednesday cleared a short-term spending bill that includes $1.1 billion in funds for Zika response efforts, the New York Times reports.

The Senate voted 72-26 to approve the spending bill and sent it to the House, which voted 342-85 to approve the measure. The bill, which now heads to President Obama, would keep the government funded through Dec. 9 (Huetteman, New York Times, 9/28). According to the White House, Obama intends to sign the legislation (Taylor, AP/Sacramento Bee, 9/28).

Background

The Zika virus is not easily diagnosed, and it does not have a cure or vaccine. It is linked to microcephaly, a sometimes fatal anomaly in which a fetus develops an abnormally small head and brain. The virus is most commonly transmitted by a bite from an infected mosquito, but it can also be spread through sexual activity (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/28).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 3,358 reported cases of Zika in the United States and another 19,777 confirmed cases in U.S. territories (Sullivan, The Hill, 9/28).

In February, the White House called for $1.8 billion to combat the virus. However, federal lawmakers have remained deadlocked on a Zika response measure after liberal lawmakers opposed provisions in one proposal (HR 2577) that would deny Planned Parenthood funds meant to increase access to contraceptives. Specifically, the measure would have blocked funding for Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico.

Debate over spending bill allocations

Last week, the Senate voted 89-7 to start debate on the short-term spending bill.

The bill includes $1.1 billion in funding for Zika response efforts, including research on a vaccine for the virus and allocations for health care services in affected regions. The proposal removes restrictions that would have blocked funding from being allocated to Planned Parenthood's partner organization in Puerto Rico, ProFamilias. The bill authorizes the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to allocate the funding via reimbursements for providers offering Zika-response services in the United States, while the Department of Health and Human Services would be authorized to do so for health care providers in Puerto Rico. However, the funding remains subject to federal law, which currently restricts the use of federal money for almost all abortion care.

However, despite the Zika funding, liberal lawmakers in the Senate on Tuesday twice blocked the bill from progressing because the measure does not allocate any funds to help Flint, Michigan, repair its lead-tainted water system (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/28).

Latest developments

Congress on Wednesday passed the spending bill after leaders in the House and Senate reached a compromise on how to allocate funding for Flint (AP/Sacramento Bee, 9/28).

Liberal lawmakers earlier in the week had raised objections that the spending bill included funds for flood response efforts in Louisiana but did not include funds for Flint. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) reached a compromise in which Pelosi and Ryan agreed to add an amendment to the House version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) (HR 5303) that would authorize about $170 million in federal aid for Flint (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/28). The House on Wednesday passed the WRDA bill with the Flint funding (New York Times, 9/28).

The Senate's version of WRDA (S 2848), which the chamber approved earlier this month, includes $220 million in federal aid for water-infrastructure projects, including funding for Flint (Dillon/Fischler, CQ News, 9/28 [subscription required]). The two bills must now be reconciled, but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he is "convinced" Congress will approve funding for Flint in its legislative session following November's general election (New York Times, 9/28).

According to the AP/Bee, the House's approval of the WRDA bill "lifted the blockade" on liberal support for the short-term spending bill.

The short-term spending bill also includes funding for the Department of Veteran Affairs and removes a longtime ban on covering in vitro fertilization services for injured veterans (AP/Sacramento Bee, 9/28).

Comments

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) praised the Flint compromise, calling the agreement "a step forward to ensuring that Flint families get the resources they need to recover from this crisis" (Bade et al., Politico, 9/28).

Separately, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) lauded the passage of the final short-term spending bill. "It took far too long -- but I am very glad that we were finally able to pass a robust bipartisan Zika response that actually protects the women and families who need it most," she said, adding, "Women's health should never be treated like a political football, so I am glad [conservative lawmakers] finally agreed to set aside the extreme provisions that would have specifically blocked Planned Parenthood health care providers from accessing critical funding" (Sullivan, The Hill, 9/28).

Murray, who helmed the effort to lift the in-vitro fertilization ban for veterans, also praised inclusion of that coverage in the final spending bill. She said, "Our country makes a promise to veterans to take care of them long after their service is over. Yet for more than 20 years, because of politicians' personal beliefs, this country has denied veterans with service-related injuries the one thing that could help them realize their dreams of having a family" (Hotakainen, Sacramento Bee, 9/28).