The Missouri Democratic Party on Wednesday increased attacks on Republican Sen. Roy Blunt over the failure of a $1.1 billion bill he’d helped craft to combat the Zika virus.
Blunt is in a tighter-than-expected fight to defend his Senate seat against Democratic Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, and the state’s Democrats were quick to implicate Blunt in the implosion of bipartisan talks on the Zika bill.
They accused him of skipping out on negotiations to attend two fundraisers the same night that Republicans filed a final version of the bill.
That version included provisions that Senate Democrats said they couldn’t support, including language that would impose restrictions on Zika funds going to Planned Parenthood, soften regulations on pesticide use and cut funds for Obamacare and Ebola research.
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Democrats in the Senate voted to block the final bill Tuesday, effectively ending hope that Congress would allocate money for Zika prevention or research before the height of mosquito season.
Sen. Blunt led a good-faith effort to reach a bipartisan agreement.
Chris Gallegos, Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman
“Unfortunately for Missourians, raising money from lobbyists is clearly more important to Sen. Blunt than protecting Missouri families from this threat,” Will Baskin-Gerwitz, Missouri Democratic Party spokesman, said in a statement.
Baskin-Gerwitz cited a leaked fundraising email that listed two events for Blunt on June 22, the night the compromise bill was filed in the House of Representatives: a 5:30 p.m. reception starring Blunt and Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and John McCain of Arizona at a townhouse in Washington and a dinner to raise money for Blunt’s campaign committee from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at an Italian restaurant downtown with Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
Republicans say Blunt wasn’t expected to be present at that point in the negotiations. They contend that Democrats are misrepresenting the timeline of events and how legislating works on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers rarely haggle over the details of such deals themselves. That responsibility usually falls to their staffers.
Blunt said Tuesday that he wasn’t there when the controversial language that doomed the bill was added. But he said didn’t have a problem with it.
“The way these conferences usually work is that usually they’re negotiated between the two chairmen and two ranking members of the (full) committee, and that was not me,” he said.
A Republican spokesman for the Senate Committee on Appropriations defended Blunt’s role, saying he was “instrumental” in negotiating a public health response to the Zika virus.
“Sen. Blunt led a good-faith effort to reach a bipartisan agreement,” the spokesman, Chris Gallegos, said in an email.
Gallegos said Blunt did not miss any member-level negotiations or meetings and helped deliver a deal that included every penny of the $1.1 billion the Senate had previously allocated for Zika response, with Democratic support.
Negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on Zika funding already had broken down June 21, the day before Blunt’s fundraisers.
Republican lawmakers and their staffs began announcing to the news media that they’d reached a compromise between House and Senate Republicans around 6 p.m. June 22, prompting Democrats to fire off outraged tweets and news releases saying they couldn’t support it. They complained that it was full of “poison pills” inserted by Republicans without input from Democrats.
The bill was finalized sometime after 8 p.m., at which point signatures were collected from Republican lawmakers who agreed to the deal, including Blunt.
Then in the wee hours of June 23, Republicans voted to pass the bill in the House amid shouts and protests from their Democratic counterparts, who were staging a sit-in to demand a vote on gun control legislation.
Senate Democrats followed through on their threat to block the bill the following week. The White House also had threatened to veto it.
The bill’s failure was a setback for Blunt, who had spent months trying to usher emergency Zika funds through Congress. He was the lead author of a bipartisan version of the bill that had passed the Senate by 89-8 in May with broad Democratic support.
The effort to address Zika fell into Blunt’s jurisdiction as chairman of a health appropriations subcommittee. It also aligned with his election-year effort to portray himself as a sensible and competent legislator who knows how to get things done in a divided Washington.
819 Travel-associated cases of Zika in the continental United States
The Blunt-sponsored bill the Senate passed would have provided $1.1 billion to combat Zika. That fell short of the $1.9 billion President Barack Obama had requested but far exceeded the $622 million passed by the House.
Unlike the House version, the spending in the Senate bill was not offset by budget cuts elsewhere.
Blunt was one of 32 members of Congress appointed to a special “conference” committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.
The members of that committee met only once in person as a group, on June 15.
After that, the negotiations mostly took place between staffers in informal meetings, by telephone and email. They broke into teams to tackle different sections of the bill. Blunt’s subcommittee staff was assigned to work on the Zika language.
“Sen. Blunt’s subcommittee staff were in constant contact and negotiation with House and Senate counterparts and the senator was actively engaged with the subcommittee part of the discussions throughout, both before and after the Democrats walked away,” Blunt’s spokesman, Brian Hart, said in a statement.
Hart said Democratic staffers were part of every negotiation on every aspect of the Zika portion of the bill, including funding levels and language, until they said they could no longer negotiate with Republicans.
“It was never made clear to our subcommittee staff why the (Democrats) walked away or over which issue in particular – and whether concerns were about Zika provisions or other issues,” he said.
Democrats say Republicans were the ones who broke off talks with them before producing a bill that had buy-in from Republicans only.
“We passed a bill in the Senate with 89 votes, a bipartisan bill that was a compromise that addressed the emergency that Zika is. Why in the world couldn’t they take that bill in the House or maybe make a few changes?” Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill said Tuesday in an interview. “But to do what they did was the ultimate cynicism, because they knew when they did they killed the bill.”