With mosquito season well underway in the United States, the U.S. Senate blocked new funds to fight the Zika virus Tuesday, prompting furious partisan finger-pointing in the oft-gridlocked chamber.
After months of prodding majority Republicans to act on Zika, Democrats banded together to defeat $1.1 billion in emergency funding. The measure needed three-fifths backing to advance, but it received just 52 votes in the 100-member Senate.
“If there was ever a bill designed to fail, it’s what the Republicans put together on Zika,” said New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
“This country is on the verge of a public health crisis,” said Republican John Cornyn of Texas. “We know they (mosquitos) are coming, and we need to act with dispatch.”
Democrats objected to cost offsets that Republicans inserted into the legislation, including cuts to Planned Parenthood, a non-profit women’s health care organization and the nation’s largest provider of abortions.
“It’s four months late, it’s $800 billion short, and it cannibalizes funding from other important health priorities,” said Schumer.
Republicans noted that Senate Democrats already agreed to the $1.1-billion funding level, a significant reduction from the $1.9 billion requested by the Obama administration earlier this year. Furthermore, Republicans argued the bill compensates for cuts to Planned Parenthood by boosting funds to community health centers that do not perform abortions.
“This legislation is the last chance we have to get Zika-control funding to the president’s desk for weeks,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "We should pass it to protect those especially at risk, like pregnant women.”
The mosquito-borne Zika virus is blamed for devastating birth defects. Given that the virus can be transmitted sexually, cuts to family planning providers defy logic, according to Democrats.
“We know that [Zika] poses the biggest danger to pregnant women and their unborn children, many of whom rely on Planned Parenthood,” Schumer said. “But Republicans can’t miss a chance to whack [cut funds to] Planned Parenthood, even if their services are exactly what can help prevent the spread of this debilitating virus.”
Anti-abortion Republicans have long sought to eliminate federal funding to Planned Parenthood, often by inserting measures into critical legislation. Democrats have fought back using the filibuster, a procedural blocking maneuver in the Senate, as well as President Barack Obama's veto authority.
Zika funding has had a convoluted legislative path on Capitol Hill. An original Senate bill, approved with bipartisan support, provided $1.1 billion with no budgetary offsets. It conflicted with a House version that funded the effort at a much lower level. A conference between the two Republican-led chambers produced the measure that was blocked Tuesday in the Senate.
The Obama administration first requested Zika funding in February, and it has shifted unspent revenues from the fight against Ebola while waiting for Congress to act.
The House of Representatives adjourned last week, and neither chamber will be in session next week in observance of the July 4 Independence Day holiday. When lawmakers return, they will have only a few weeks to act on Zika before the annual August recess.
“When we get back [July 11], we’ll address this matter again, and hopefully respond as our constituents all across America are asking us to respond,” McConnell said.
Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida, a state particularly at risk for Zika, expressed disbelief over Congress’ inability to approve emergency funds.
“If it’s an earthquake, a flood, a wildfire, a hurricane – we have always stepped forth [with funds],” Nelson said. “And if you don’t believe that this Zika crisis is an emergency, well just wait.”