The day Zika deal died: A cautionary tale of congressional gridlock

A spray technician with Pinellas County Mosquito Control uses a fogger to distribute VectoBac, a biopesticide engineered to kill mosquito larvae, into plants behind a home in Oldsmar, Fla., on Aug. 23, 2016. Efforts in Congress to reach a bipartisan deal on funding to fight Zika failed earlier this summer.
A spray technician with Pinellas County Mosquito Control uses a fogger to distribute VectoBac, a biopesticide engineered to kill mosquito larvae, into plants behind a home in Oldsmar, Fla., on Aug. 23, 2016. Efforts in Congress to reach a bipartisan deal on funding to fight Zika failed earlier this summer. AP

Democrats and Republicans were tantalizingly close to a deal on funding Zika prevention measures this summer when it all fell apart in the final 48 hours, according to interviews with a half-dozen senior congressional staffers involved in the talks.

The staffers, three Democrats and three Republicans, spoke to McClatchy anonymously because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. They described a week of intense talks thwarted, in the end, by political entrenchment and unfortunate timing.

“I thought we were really close,” said one staffer who was in the room the last time negotiators from both parties met in June.

Had there been more time, more space, had the atmosphere been a little different, maybe progress could have been made.

Republican staffer involved in Zika negotiations

But outside that room, partisan rhetoric was heating up. And time was running out.

The House of Representatives had to pass a bill in time for the Senate to take it up before the July Fourth recess. After that, members of Congress would be out of Washington for the rest of the summer.

This was the last chance to boost funding to fight Zika before peak mosquito season hit and the country registered its first locally transmitted cases of the disease.

The story of how Congress missed that chance is a cautionary tale about the politics of gridlock: In an election year, it’s more tempting to beat up your opponents for intransigence than make concessions you have to sell to your own base.

“The closer you get to the election, the more the whole thing gets tied up in the politics of the election coming up,” said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

“This year in particular,” he said, “the degree of polarization is very, very high.”

Three senior U.S. government experts testify before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee to urge Congress to pass a $1.1 billion Zika prevention bill stalled by partisan politics. The bill stalled after a House GOP version added provisions to b

The parties’ presidential conventions were just days away, and it was becoming increasingly clear that control of the Senate was on the line in November.

Further complicating matters was a Democratic sit-in in the House of Representatives to demand votes on gun control that began shortly before noon on June 22, the same day that Republicans presented their final draft of the bill to Democrats.

“It was not a good situation for Kumbaya,” as one Democratic staffer put it.

Pressure to fund a response to the Zika virus begin in February, when President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion to boost vaccine research and ramp up testing and mosquito control efforts. Evidence was growing that Zika could cause debilitating brain damage in unborn children, as were fears of an outbreak in the continental United States.

On May 18, the House passed a bill that provided $622 million for Zika through September, only about a third as much as Obama had requested. The spending was entirely offset by budget cuts, with half of the money coming from unspent Ebola funds.

The bill also included grant funding language for states and U.S. territories that was so restrictive that even Republicans admitted it likely would prevent the use of the money for contraception, which was crucial to preventing Zika-related birth defects.

The White House threatened to veto it.

The Senate passed its own bill the next day. The bipartisan compromise worked out by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington sailed through by a vote of 89-8. That legislation would have provided $1.1 billion in emergency funds, which by definition did not have to be financed by any spending cuts.

There were no provisions about how states could spend grant money or language about lifting environmental regulations to spray for mosquitoes, even temporarily.

There’s no question the sit-in didn’t help. It just threw that gasoline on that fire. . . . Would it have made a difference? Who knows? But it certainly didn’t help.

Bill Hoagland, senior vice president, Bipartisan Policy Center

Blunt and Murray were among 32 members of Congress from both parties who were appointed to a special “conference” committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

That committee met only once, on June 15.

The real work got underway afterward, at the staff level.

Staffers broke into teams to tackle different sections of the bill, hashing out details face-to-face, by phone and email. By all accounts, the negotiations were intense but made progress for nearly a week until coming to loggerheads over the final three issues: funding cuts, Planned Parenthood and pesticides.

Two senior Democratic staff members and two senior Republican staff members from the House and Senate appropriations committees led the talks in the final stages. The four have decades’ worth of experience on the Hill and a tradition of working together across party lines on everything from emergency funds for Ebola to massive omnibus spending bills.

It was clear from the outset that Democrats were unwilling to compromise on funding. They wanted what they had agreed to in Blunt and Murray’s bipartisan Senate bill: at least $1.1 billion in emergency funds, no offsets.

There is a definition in the law of what constitutes an emergency, Democrats said, and Zika meets the definition by any standard. Accepting cuts would create a terrible precedent, they said.

Republicans directly involved in the talks agreed that their counterparts had no leeway to negotiate the matter.

“They just didn’t have license at whatever level, I don’t know what level,” a Republican staffer said. “It was a theological issue.”

Although cuts were off the table, there was some back and forth on the language about block grants and pesticides, with each side making offers and counteroffers.

On pesticides, Republicans decided to lift the pesticide rules for 180 days, thinking the time limit might be palatable to Democrats.

Republicans also dropped the original House language on grants and ended up with an alternative they considered to be a compromise. The grants could go to health services provided by public health departments or reimbursed through Medicaid. At the last minute they added hospitals, too.

But since Planned Parenthood isn’t eligible for Medicaid reimbursement in Puerto Rico, this was a no-go as far as Democrats were concerned.

From Blunt’s perspective, House Republicans’ insistence on including block grant language to keep funds from Planned Parenthood distracted from the more serious obstacle to an agreement: How to pay for new Zika spending?

Had that language not been included, he said, “then it would have become more clearly a fight about would you pay for an emergency” instead of a partisan battle over Planned Parenthood.

I thought then as I think now that there’s a relatively easy solution here and both sides have to give up ground to move forward.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Believing they were at an impasse with Democrats, House and Senate Republicans withdrew to confer among themselves on June 21.

That morning, Democratic lawmakers began to imply publicly that they weren’t happy.

At 10:03 a.m. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid tweeted, “Republicans should not turn Zika health emergency into a partisan game by siphoning money from Ebola or Affordable Care Act.”

Murray went on the floor of the Senate two hours later to warn against taking money from one public health priority to support another.

“With the health and well-being of women and babies on the line – now is not a time for nickel-and-diming,” she said.

The next day, at about 11:30 a.m. on June 22, Georgia Rep. John Lewis and other Democratic House members walked onto the floor of the House and sat down. What began as a hastily planned gesture quickly escalated into a full-fledged sit-in to demonstrate Democratic frustration over the Republican refusal to hold votes on gun control.

When House Republicans turned off the chamber’s cameras, Democrats switched on their cellphones to broadcast images of the sit-in via the internet and C-SPAN. Within hours, a sympathetic crowd started to gather outside the building, adding to the pressure on Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan to bring the legislature back to regular order or adjourn.

Elsewhere in the Capitol, Republican staffers presented Democrats with their final draft of the Zika bill. It would cut $750 million from Obamacare, Ebola and the Department of Health and Human Services to pay for $1.1 billion in spending on Zika.

By far the largest chunk of cash came from $543 million intended to set up Affordable Care Act exchanges in the U.S. territories. In a quirk of the budget, the money couldn’t be used for the purpose originally intended and so was “dead money” that enabled both parties to avoid cutting programs they really cared about.

Democratic staffers made it clear they hadn’t been posturing. They weren’t empowered to talk about offsets or accept the riders as proposed.

The feeling among staffers involved in the negotiations was that the differences could be worked out eventually. But time was not on their side.

Although there were two more working days on the calendar that week, Republicans were eager to end the sit-in that had roiled the House floor that day.

And they had to get a bill to the Senate with enough time for that chamber vote before the summer recess or risk getting blamed for missing the window to act.

Republicans filed the bill at 10:04 p.m. on June 22. It had none of the customary Democratic signatures that characterize a bipartisan agreement.

Ryan brought the bill to a vote at 3:11 the next morning, amid deafening shouts of “shame” and boos from Democratic protesters. It passed on a party-line vote as Democrats sang “We Shall Overcome” and waved papers with the names of gun victims on them.

Ryan then adjourned the House until July 5, effectively ending the sit-in.

Outraged Senate Democrats vowed to block the bill.

They did so before the summer recess and are expected to do so again Tuesday, when Congress returns to Capitol Hill.