The Senate Dithers Again as Zika Virus Continues to Spread
Policy + Politics

The Senate Dithers Again as Zika Virus Continues to Spread

© Daniel Becerril / Reuters

As the U.S. becomes increasingly vulnerable to the global spread of the much feared Zika virus, the Senate seeking to address the growing crisis did what it does best on Tuesday: It dithered.

On the same day that Florida officials reported the first case of a woman giving birth to an infant with microcephaly, the head deforming disease spread by infected mosquitos, Senate Democrats and Republicans stalled over a $1.1 billion measure to finance a public health campaign to try to stop the disease from spreading in this country. Although the woman who gave birth to the deformed baby is a Haitian who contracted the disease while outside the U.S., federal officials warn that mosquitos will likely be infecting people in southern states with the warmer weather upon us.

Related: U.S. lawmakers deadlock on Zika virus funds

Congress typically has gone down to the wire in addressing some of the most challenging problems, such as the government running out of money or being on the verge of a default; the aftermath of major storms like Sandy and other natural disasters and floods; and Puerto Rico’s simmering bankruptcy crisis, just to name a few. Partisan sniping and political maneuvering frequently have complicated these legislative challenges and led to major delays.

Highly alarmed Republicans pressed the Obama administration to move with greater dispatch in 2014 amid fears of a small handful of Ebola cases in the U.S. But this time around, GOP lawmakers have moved with far less urgency in response to reports of the spreading Zika virus. And now Republicans and Democrats are caught up again in a partisan deadlock with highly serious public health implications.

Norman Ornstein, a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute who has written widely on congressional gridlock, said in an interview on Tuesday that there is no excuse for lawmakers’ failure to act before now on the spreading Zika virus, given the fact “that we’ve known this crisis was emerging, that it was going to be particularly tough during the summer months and had a real potential to spread from a handful of places to a much larger range across the United States.”

“To play politics with a health crisis like this and still be unable to do anything, it’s a poster child for really not just gridlock but an utterly dysfunctional legislative process,” Ornstein added.

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Indeed, since early March, many of the nation’s top public health officials have been warning of the need for “urgent action” to contain the Zika virus -- and called on Congress to allocate funds for research and for mosquito control to prevent the spreading of the disease. President Obama had requested $1.8 billion for the task, according to the New York Times, but his proposal almost immediately ran into resistance on Capitol Hill, where Republicans suggested that money previously earmarked for the Ebola virus be used instead.

Public health officials responded that most of those Ebola funds were already committed to testing vaccines and to continue monitoring in Africa for signs of another Ebola outbreak. Despite a growing public unease over reports of Zika – including concerns that it would force a postponement of the Summer Olympics in Brazil -- Congress continued to take its sweet time.

The Zika virus has plagued the Caribbean and the Americas since last fall. It has been blamed for thousands of cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect that results in bizarre head deformities and neurological disorders. The World Health Organization has declared it a global health emergency.

There have not been any reported cases of local transmission of the Zika virus in the continental U.S, according to Reuters. However, 820 cases of the Zika virus were acquired by people while traveling abroad or gained through sexual transmission. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory located in the Caribbean, has reported more than 1,800 cases of Zika infection.

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Fast forward to Tuesday: With the House finally on board with the new funding legislation, the Senate appeared set to give final approval to a House-Senate conference report on military and veterans spending that included $1.1 billion to fund Zika virus research. The funds could be used for mosquito control efforts by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, money for vaccine research by the National Institutes of Health, and assisting communities hardest hit by Zika transmission.

But Senate Democrats complained that Republicans had excluded them from the room when they drafted the details of the funding plan. They complained that they weren’t privy to decisions to cut spending elsewhere in the budget and to transfer money to the Zika initiative from others used to battle Ebola and implement Obamacare in U.S. territories.

Perhaps the Democrats biggest beef was a provision added renewing the Republicans’ long standing battle against Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides abortion related services as well as family planning consultation and birth control. Republicans last year mounted a major attack and investigation of Planned Parenthood over conservatives’ complaints about its practices of disposing of fetal material. President Obama and the Democrats blocked GOP efforts to cut off funding for Family Planning, but they were back at it again this week.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and other Democratic leaders were furious and blocked the legislation. On a crucial vote, 52 to 48, the Republicans fell eight votes short of a super majority of 60 needed to invoke cloture and pass the legislation. It now appears that the legislation will languish until after the July 4 holiday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) denounced the Democrats for engaging in “partisan politics” by blocking the spending bill, according to The Hill. "They might like to pretend this Zika control measure is woefully inadequate, but Senate Democrats are all on record supporting this level of funding. It's really puzzling to hear Democrats claim to be advocates for women's health measures when they are the ones trying to block the Zika legislation."

"I don't know what planet my friend the Republican leader is living on," Reid retorted. “The conference report is nothing more than a goody bag for the fringes of the Republican Party."