Ryan Feels the Pinch on Zika Funding

Heritage Action joins conservatives in calling for budget offsets

A city environmental health worker displays literature to be distributed to the public in April in McAllen, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)
A city environmental health worker displays literature to be distributed to the public in April in McAllen, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)
Posted May 13, 2016 at 2:29pm

The battle over paying for a response to the mosquito-borne Zika virus outbreak is putting Speaker Paul D. Ryan in a position familiar to his predecessor, John A. Boehner , as the weather heats up.  

Heritage Action for America  is calling for any spending on the effort to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. As the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, the group has the ear of House conservatives who have pushed for spending caps for much of the Obama era. The outside group’s pronouncements also carry weight with conservative donors who can hurt an incumbent’s re-election hopes by fielding a primary challenge.  

Ryan will have to decide how far to accommodate Heritage Action’s wishes as Congress takes up plans to spend upward of $1 billion to head off a possible pandemic — an effort that has the rare support of both President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.   

Dan Holler, a spokesman for the organization, made their stance clear on Friday.  

“The Obama administration’s politicization of the issue is troubling,” Holler said in a statement. “If lawmakers decide additional funding is necessary, those funds should be fully offset either through reprogramming or spending as part of the [fiscal 2017] appropriations process.”  

The White House has signaled it could support a Zika supplemental with some or all of the funds offset.  

[Related: White House Picks a Fight With No. 3 House Republican]

After lawmakers working on a Zika compromise floated the idea of offsets, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on April 29 he “wouldn’t rule that out of hand.”  

But White House officials have concerns that a “protracted debate” over proposed offsets could stall legislation just as the virus could spread, Earnest said.  

“One of the reasons that emergency funding is typically not offset is that funding bills can often get bogged down about debates about the pay-fors,” Earnest said. “But given how long it has taken to just discuss the funding in and of itself, I find it hard to imagine a scenario in which there isn’t a protracted debate about the pay-fors. That protracted debate at this point, frankly, is not something that we can afford.”

But this week, Earnest seemed to back off that stance, saying the Zika situation should be treated as an emergency. Such funding would typically not be offset by federal budget cuts.

Any effort to combat the virus — which can affect pregnant women and unborn babies , and cause neurological problems in adults — that lands on the House floor is certain to be scrutinized by fiscal conservatives.  

[Related: Finger Pointing Over Zika Money Sets White House Against Ryan]

It puts Ryan in a tough spot , one familiar one to Boehner who quit Congress  in October after years of battling the same conservative faction.  

So far, Ryan has walked a tightrope on Zika.  

On April 13, he said any additional money beyond nearly $590 million shifted to Zika efforts by the White House should be dealt with “through the regular appropriations process as the need arises.”  

Eight days later, Ryan declined to rule out the possibility of a supplemental appropriations measure for Zika, adding: “I’m not going to foreclose the Appropriations Committee’s options.”  

[Related: Ryan Expects Bipartisan Action on Zika]

And then there is the matter of offsets. Asked about such a scenario, a Ryan aide referred a reporter comments the speaker made on Wednesday that left the door open to moving an emergency bill.  

“We’re looking at all different options,” Ryan said. “We haven’t foreclosed any options and we’re waiting to hear from the appropriators what they think the best way forward is.”  

Ryan could put a Senate version of a Zika supplemental that does not include offsets on the floor and pass it with Democratic votes. Boehner did that on must-pass bills several times, but those actions helped drive him from office .  

The nameplate over the speaker’s office  may be different. But the Zika debate shows that little has changed on that side of the Capitol, and in the White House’s ability to find common ground with the House’s conservative faction.  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @bennettjohnt.