Congress Is Finally Freaking Out Over Zika
As the mosquito-borne virus ravages parts of Florida, Congress is at long last considering a bill to research a vaccine for the virus. Unless abortion politics derails the whole thing.
For the first time in seven weeks, Congress has a chance to do something about the steady spread of the Zika virus in the United States and its territories.
If they don’t let abortion politics get in the way.
The chance—in the form of a $1.1 billion funding bill—comes after ignoring calls from fellow lawmakers, doctors, scientists, and at least one presidential ticket to come back and approve money to fund prevention and research of the virus.
Republicans blamed Democrats, Democrats blamed Republicans. And the mosquitos, not having a party affiliation (that we know of), continued to infect more people with the Zika virus.
As of Aug. 31, there are nearly 2,722 reported cases of Zika in the United States and D.C.—that number balloons to nearly 17,000 when the territories are included. Of the 2,722 cases, 624 are pregnant women, according to the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control.
Last week, researchers in Miami found virus-carrying mosquitoes—bad news for anyone hoping this was a problem that would fade away.
A new August Kaiser Health Tracking tracking poll found that half of those surveyed said they wouldn’t feel “comfortable traveling to places like parts of Florida” that have the virus, and a whooping 77 percent said those places weren’t safe for pregnant women.
Not to mention the CDC is broke.
“The cupboard is bare,” Tom Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on Aug. 30. “Basically, we’re out of money, and we need Congress to act to allow us to respond effectively.”
Suffice it to say, the pressure on hometown lawmakers has grown.
“As Congress reconvenes Tuesday, I have a simple message for both parties: Zika is not a political game,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is up for re-election, said in a press release on Friday. “It is about people’s lives, and we have a duty to do everything we can to solve this problem immediately.”
He pledged—as he has in the past—to vote for any bill that funds the fight against Zika.
“I will continue to support legislation that will fund the fight against Zika, just as I have voted for every single bill that’s come up in the Senate so far,” he said. “I will do so again on Tuesday, but Congress should be prepared to pass a Zika funding measure as part of whatever spending bill ultimately passes to fund the government beyond Sept. 30.”
Even Tea Party lawmakers, who rarely find a spending fight they won’t complicate, said they would be willing to throw out the Planned Parenthood language included in the House version of the bill and pass a clean funding bill.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott had planned to fly to D.C. this week to lobby Republican leaders for funding but had to postpone the trip due to the damage caused by Hurricane Hermine, according to the Palm Beach Post.
(In August, a White House official told The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift, Scott has been “basically screaming at Washington,” as the outbreak worsened in Florida.)
As Rubio indicated in his release, Capitol Hill leadership aides hinted last week that the funding would likely be attached to a massive spending bill to keep the government open—called the “continuing resolution” in Capitol Hill-speak—that needs to pass before Congress heads home to finish out the 2016 campaign season.
And while Minority Leader Harry Reid warned of an impending government shutdown that could stall all of the funding last week, Republicans have little political incentive to hold up any spending bill with the upcoming elections in which the control of the Senate hangs in the balance.
As with most of the panics at the end of a congressional session, this last-minute scramble could have been prevented.
President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funds back in February to begin development of a Zika vaccine.
In May, a bipartisan coalition of Senators approved $1.1 billion for it.
But instead of passing the Senate measure, House Republicans delivered a $1.1 billion bill that also included language that would make it harder for Planned Parenthood to receive funding through the bill.
(While it does not include the words “Planned Parenthood,” Republican lawmakers said that’s whom the provision targeted, more specifically the group’s chapter in Puerto Rico called Profamilias—the bill says only “health services provided by public health departments, hospitals, or reimbursed through public health plans” can have access to the funds.)
As a result, Democrats blocked the measure.
Last week, those same Senate Democrats were already girding for a fight over what they called political tactics surrounding such important legislation.
“The speed of the clock ticking in Congress is not the same speed as a clock ticking with an epidemic,” Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow said on a conference call with reporters. “There is no excuse for not having done something much earlier.”
She accused Republicans of “playing politics with an epidemic” with the funding and then leaving town.
“Shockingly, though, it’s our understanding, when we get back into session [Tuesday] the Republicans, once again, are going to bring up the bill that plays politics with women’s health care,” she said. “There is no reason that we can’t move forward with the bipartisan agreement the Senate passed four months ago, and frankly it’s irresponsible not to do that.”
The debate over funding has yet to become a contentious issue in the presidential race, though both campaigns have addressed the crisis in varying ways.
Both Hillary Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine called for Congress to return to pass funding. Kaine said he would go back to Washington to vote on the funding at a moment’s notice. Clinton has also called for the creation of a “Public Health Rapid Response Fund” that will be fully funded to address “major public health crises and pandemics” before they become an expensive, unmanageable problems.
When asked by a local Florida reporter in August about the congressional response, Trump said it was Gov. Scott’s call.
“I would say that it’s up to Rick Scott. It depends on what he’s looking to do because he really seems to have it under control in Florida,” Trump told WPEC.