Senate leaders see path forward on funding Zika virus

Senate leaders in both parties said Wednesday they’re talking with the White House about two major issues that remain unaddressed this year: approving emergency money to fight the Zika virus and keeping most of the federal government funded after the end of the month.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters that the goal is to fund the government at last year’s levels, through Dec. 9 of this year. “We are in discussions about how to work out some of the differences we had that led to Democrats filibustering Zika funding on multiple occasions,” McConnell said.

Democrats have blocked a $1.1 billion Zika bill three times in the Senate, because they object to Republican provisions in the bill, among them a ban on Planned Parenthood using any of the funds. Democrats also don’t like that the bill takes money from other programs to pay for Zika research and prevention.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans should keep additions from the most conservative Republicans away from the Zika bill. “We want to make sure they get the money they desperately need, and that doesn’t have a bunch of Freedom Caucus bells and whistles on it,” Reid said.

Zika has been the central issue Congress confronts as it returns from a seven-week recess. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it will run out of money to fight Zika by the end of this month. President Obama in February asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency Zika money. So far, zero has been approved.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., held back tears Wednesday as she described the condition in which infants are born with smaller heads as a result of the disease, known as microcephaly. She called on Republicans to approve Zika money now that will last for a year.

For his part, House Speaker Paul Ryan said the House has already passed Zika money, and Democrats in the Senate are preventing it from going to the president for a signature.

“Give me a break on this thing. We passed a $1.1 billion dollar bill for Zika, which was the level agreed to in the Senate,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday morning. “I think they are just being wholly partisan with these endless filibusters.”