As the Zika virus is reported to be spreading in the United States, public health officials are keen to deploy a mass response. But Congressional gridlock over funding to fight Zika is stalled.
In a 52-48 vote on Tuesday, Senate Democrats blocked a Republican-drafted bill that would have allocated $1.1 billion in emergency funding to fighting Zika. The bill needed 60 votes to pass. Democrats took exception with a provision loosening Environmental Protection Agency restrictions as well as another that prohibited funds from being directed to Planned Parenthood and other women’s health clinics. After the vote, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York accusing the GOP of “[taking] Zika hostage” by inserting "poison pills" into the bills on Thursday, according to NBC News.
Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics. In an op-ed published in The Hill, Rep. Andy Harris (R) of Maryland called increases in funding to Planned Parenthood unnecessary and said the failed proposal “actively calls for tight monetary oversight to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent appropriately”, in contrast to the “blank check” for $1.9 billion requested by the Obama administration back in February.
The failed passage of a bill designed as a compromise on an earlier measure drafted in the House left lawmakers without much time to spare. Congress breaks for seven weeks on July 15. In the meantime, health officials are burning up borrowed funds – the administration has redirected almost $600 million in unspent money approved for spending on the ebola crisis.
Among other appropriations, the Senate bill would have allotted $476 million for mosquito-control programs, and $230 million for the development of a Zika vaccine.
The House’s version would have provided just $622 million in funding, far short of what the Obama administration had sought. It occasioned a veto threat from the White House, which cited assessments from health experts. “We didn’t draw that figure from the clouds,” said President Obama on Friday. “It was based on the assessment of our scientists and our experts in terms of what was going to be needed for basic mosquito abatement and vaccine development, and making sure that we've got the proper diagnostic tools.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 935 cases have thus far been identified in the continental US, with all but one brought in by travelers. US territories – Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and Samoa – have been hardest hit, with over 2,000 cases reported there.
In mid-June, CDC director Tom Frieden said that Zika’s spread was increasing “rapidly” in Puerto Rico and, CNN reported that he emphasized that residents in areas of active transmission of the virus should use protective measures such as DEET repellent and long-sleeve clothing, and to work to reduce mosquito breeding sites, adding that it "takes an entire community" to protect women.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky told USA Today that the chamber would likely hold another vote on the same Zika funding bill next week. "We'll address this matter again (next week) and hopefully respond...to this pending health care crisis," he said.