With one week left to pass a Zika funding bill before the summer congressional recess, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson on Thursday called for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to allow a new vote on a stripped-down $1.1 billion Zika funding package, then send the measure to the House of Representatives for reconsideration.
The compromise bill, which passed the Senate in May, would still fall $800 million short of the $1.9 billion in emergency funding sought by President Barack Obama in February. But in a conference call that included administration officials, Nelson said time was running out to protect the nation from a growing public health threat.
Nelson said the bill, which contains only Zika funding provisions, would address Democrats’ objections to a House-passed bill that provided $1.1 billion in funding but included a number of “poison pill” provisions that led Senate Democrats to reject the measure last month.
Among those provisions was one that would bar private family-planning organizations, including Planned Parenthood, from receiving federal funds to provide Zika-related reproductive health services – even though the virus can be transmitted through sexual intercourse as well as by mosquitoes.
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Nelson said the $1.1 billion the Senate passed originally was “free of any of those policy riders.”
“Hopefully there will be some reason in the majority leader’s office,” he said.
Democrats also objected to provisions in the House bill that would soften federal Clean Air Act rules on the use of pesticides. In addition, the measure was paid for by cuts of $107 million in Ebola funding and $543 million in funding for Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.
The lack of funding has halted the next phase of trials for a Zika vaccine and it hurts administration efforts to develop better diagnostic tools and engage in research on transmission of the virus and its effects on unborn children, said Amy Pope, a deputy adviser in the Department of Homeland Security.
More than 1,100 Americans have become infected with the virus while traveling abroad. That includes 14 sexually transmitted cases and 320 pregnant women. Seven U.S. infants have been born with Zika-related birth defects.
But Donald Stewart, the Senate majority leader’s spokesman, said Senate Democrats could either vote for the House proposal as is or they could block it. “There is no third option,” Stewart said.
Stewart said Democratic objections to the House bill stemmed more from the Planned Parenthood restrictions than the bill’s loosening of restrictions on the Clean Air Act. Stewart said those changes were only temporary to allow for more aggressive mosquito spraying.
Failure by the Senate to pass a Zika package would cause a joint House-Senate negotiation committee to reconvene and create a new compromise bill.
But that likely would not be done before Congress breaks for seven weeks beginning next week.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said simply bringing the House proposal up for another Senate vote would be “an exercise in futility.”
“He can’t just put up a bill that fails when we have an emergency,” Schumer said of McConnell. “He’s got to work with Democrats and get something passed. . . . This is not a time to play political games. It’s a time to compromise and get something done.”
Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, who backed the president’s call for $1.9 billion in Zika funding and voted for the House-backed measure, on Thursday called on Senate Democrats to back the House proposal as well.
“It’s disgraceful that Zika funds have been stonewalled again by dysfunctional Washington politics,” Buchanan said in a statement. “The Senate Democrats have yet another opportunity to show they are serious about getting much-needed resources to our communities before more Americans are infected. Mosquitoes are out in full force during the summer so we need that funding now more than ever.”
The funding gridlock has heightened concern in Florida, where mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus breed year-round. Although no cases of mosquito-transmitted Zika virus have been reported in the continental United States, the number of infections is mounting.
The Florida Department of Health reported 11 new travel-related cases in Florida on Wednesday, the largest single-day tally for any state since the crisis began. The new cases comprise three each in Broward and Orange counties and two in Miami-Dade. So far, 28 confirmed cases are exhibiting symptoms in Florida.
Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on the conference call that more than 1,100 Americans had become infected with the virus while traveling abroad. That includes 14 sexually transmitted cases and 320 pregnant women. Seven U.S. infants have been born with Zika-related birth defects, Frieden said.
More than 2,000 locally acquired Zika cases have been reported in U.S. territories, with most in Puerto Rico, where an average of 15 people are infected each day.
Seventy-two percent of Americans – including majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans — support allocating more federal funds to study the Zika virus and prevent its spread, according to a new poll this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Nearly two-thirds of the public – 65 percent – supports helping U.S. women with reproductive health services in areas affected by the virus.