Zika aid seen as only spending deal likely to emerge soon

Source: George Cahlink, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Congress seems unlikely to wrap up its annual appropriations work until later this year, but lawmakers from both parties are eager to strike a quick deal on a Zika funding package.

House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer raised fresh doubts yesterday over whether Congress will complete its fiscal 2017 work before December, leaving federal agencies to operate under current funding for at least the first three months of the new fiscal year.

“We are out of time,” the Maryland Democrat told reporters yesterday. He said Congress will send President Obama few, if any, spending bills in advance of the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Hoyer said he expects when Congress returns from summer break in early September it will pass a continuing resolution to fund government at current levels through the first week of December.

The move would allow lawmakers to avoid the specter of a government shutdown as voters head to the polls. For agencies however, it would delay any budget increases or new projects until Congress can provide fresh fiscal 2017 funding.

Hoyer said a CR would give lawmakers a few weeks after the general election to craft an omnibus to provide fiscal 2017 spending levels for federal agencies.

“We ought to do what we did last year at worst,” said Hoyer, referring to the year-end omnibus spending package.

Some House conservatives have suggested Congress might pass a far longer CR that would fund government into next spring. Under that scenario, conservatives are betting the GOP would win the White House and with a new president in place, Congress would be able to push for even deeper spending cuts.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) deflected questions about a possible CR yesterday, saying the Senate would continue to work on spending bills. “We’re going to continue to do appropriation bills almost exclusively,” he told reporters.

Congress has yet to send the president any fiscal 2017 appropriations bills. The House has passed three with a fourth, the financial services spending bill, on the floor later this week; while the Senate too has moved three and is now considering its version of the Commerce-Justice-Science bill.

Neither chamber has moved its Interior-Environment spending bill, which funds the Interior Department, U.S. EPA and other lands agencies. Only the Senate has passed an energy-water spending bill, which covers the Energy Department, Army Corps of Engineers and nuclear programs.

CJS bill

Senate work on the $56 billion CJS bill continues to be dominated by talks over attaching gun riders.

The chamber is expected to vote on a narrow proposal from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) aimed at limiting gun sales to terrorists after four broader gun control proposals failed to get the 60 votes needed to advance Monday night (E&E Daily, June 21). It’s not yet clear if Collins’ plan will get the votes.

In the meantime, more than 125 amendments are pending to the bill, which has been on the floor the past week. It funds the Commerce and Justice departments, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation, among other federal research agencies.

“Good question,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top CJS appropriator, said yesterday when asked if he expects the bill to be passed this week.

Among the amendments pending are:

  • A proposal from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to require NOAA to examine salmon mortality rates in the Sacramento River and ways to promote their recovery.
  • Proposals from Rhode Island Democratic Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse to give the Ocean State a slot on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council.
  • A proposal from Ohio Sens. Rob Portman (R) and Sherrod Brown (D) to have NASA and the Energy Department produce a report on using radioisotopic power systems for deep space exploration.
  • A proposal from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) to require NOAA to report annually to Congress on information requests from lawmakers and those filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • A proposal from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would cut National Institute of Standards and Technology funding to $680 million.
  • A proposal from Flake that would require agencies to provide more details on the specific costs of scientific studies funded by the bill.

Zika push

Lawmakers from both parties suggested one funding measure that could move soon is proposed aid for combating the Zika crisis.

“We’re anxious to finish that, and we will certainly get it done very quickly,” McConnell said.

Competing House and Senate proposals are now being considered by conferees who kicked off formal negotiations last week.

An aide said there was not yet a timeline for a deal, although this week’s House schedule lists Zika funding as a possibility for floor action late in the week. The House is off next week while the Senate is in session.

Appropriators have significant differences to work out, with the Senate backing a bipartisan $1.1 billion plan for fighting the mosquito-borne disease while a narrower, partisan House plan would provide $622 million. A crucial difference is that the House plan would be offset with budget cuts elsewhere, while the Senate proposal would not.

House Democrats frustrated with the pace of negotiations filed a discharge petition to force a vote on a $1.9 billion Zika package requested by the administration four months ago. If a majority of the House signs the petition — a long shot given the GOP majority — then Democrats could call up their funding bill.

New York Rep. Nita Lowey, the chamber’s top Democratic appropriator, called it an “epic failure” that the Zika bill has yet to clear Congress. She said Democratic conferees were continuing to “work in good faith” and still held out hope for a deal before July 4.

Lowey also did not rule out backing a figure lower than the $1.9 billion request: “We’ll see what they offer.”

The real negotiations over a final Zika aid package won’t be between the parties but will be between GOP leaders in both chambers.

Senate Republican leaders, eager to protect several members facing tough re-election bids this fall, will press to move fast without offsets to avoid any perception that they failed to address an emerging public health crisis. House GOP leaders, however, will push back against any plan that lacks offsets, mindful that conservatives see any new spending as anathema.

Under both proposals, the Zika funding would be directed toward the Department of Health and Human Services and federal research agencies.