Republicans in control of negotiations on long-delayed funding to combat the Zika virus are promising a quick agreement, as behind-the-scenes negotiations have focused on a potential deal in the range of a $1.1 billion measure passed by the Senate last month.
A trickier issue involves whether to pair the Zika funds with cuts to other programs as called for by House Republicans to defray the measure's effect on the budget deficit. Democrats, whose votes may be needed to pass the final measure, are against the idea.
Zika virus can cause horrible birth defects and can be transmitted by mosquitoes that are common in much of the United States.
Negotiators officially met on Wednesday, but only to make opening speeches to satisfy a requirement for at least one public negotiating session.
"It is imperative that we complete our negotiations quickly," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky. "With mosquito season upon us, these Zika dollars must get out the door now to help control the spread of this disease. In addition, funds are needed immediately to continue longer term efforts to stop this disease."
Rogers was the chief architect of a $622 million plan that passed the House last month as well, and immediately drew a White House veto threat. The White House said the House measure was inadequate and placed unnecessary restrictions on Zika funding.
President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion four months ago. After Congress sat on the request for weeks, Obama tapped into more than $500 million of unspent funds from the recent Ebola crisis to provide for mosquito control, research into a vaccine, better tests to detect the virus and help for foreign countries for their battles against Zika.
After successfully forcing Obama to reallocate funds appropriated for Ebola and other purposes to battle Zika, Republicans have felt ever-increasing pressure to act on at least part of Obama's request. The bipartisan $1.1 billion Senate measure, both Democrats and Republicans say, is likely as low as Obama and his Democratic allies are willing to go.
Obama to Congress: We Need Zika Money Now
"It cannot be any less than that," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a key negotiator. Murray's GOP counterpart, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, recently made similar comments.
The Senate measure does not contain accompanying spending cuts in keeping with rules for unforeseen emergencies such as the 2014 Ebola scare or Superstorm Sandy in 2012. House negotiators insist on cuts, however, and Democrats privately acknowledge there will have to be at least some.
"It needs to be fully offset," Rogers said after the session.
But the powerful chairman's spokeswoman quickly emailed a clarification that Rogers' demands for dollar-for-dollar spending cuts was just his "opening position."
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Details are sketchy, but Republican and Democratic aides following the talks closely say one option under discussion is to split the difference by requiring part of the final measure to be offset, perhaps the $622 million House figure, while adding the remainder to the deficit. The aides requiring anonymity because the negotiations are closely held and they were not authorized to speak on the record.