With one week left to pass a Zika funding bill before the summer congressional recess, Florida Senator Bill Nelson on Thursday asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow a stripped-down $1.1 billion Zika funding package to be sent back to the House for reconsideration.
The $1.1 billion package, a compromise bill that already 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 on Thursday with administration officials, including Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nelson said time is running out to protect the nation from the growing public health threat of the Zika virus.
“Bring up that same $1.1 billion measure and allow the Senate to send it back to the House, since we are running out of time, as a stand-alone bill free of any of those policy riders,” Nelson said. “Hopefully there will be some reason in the majority leader’s office.”
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Nelson said a Zika-only bill would address Democrats’ objections to the GOP-backed House Zika version that provided $1.1 billion funding along with a number of “poison pill” provisions that caused Senate Democrats to reject the measure last month.
The House-backed legislation barred private family-planning organizations, including Planned Parenthood, from getting federal funds to provide Zika-related reproductive health services — even though the mosquito-borne illness can be transmitted through sexual intercourse.
Democrats also objected to provisions of the bill that softened 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 Affordable Care Act funding.
The lack of funding has halted the next phase of trials for a Zika vaccine and hurt 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 homeland security advisor.
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 stem more from the Planned Parenthood restrictions rather than the bill’s loosening of restrictions on the Clean Air Act. Stewart said those changes are only temporary to allow for 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 would not likely be done before Congress breaks for seven weeks beginning next week.
Senator Chuck Schumer, D-NY, 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.”
Congressman 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 pose a potential health threat. Although no cases of mosquito-transmitted Zika virus have been reported in the continental United States, the number of infections are 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 include three in Broward and Orange Counties and two in Miami-Dade. So far, 28 confirmed cases are exhibiting symptoms in Florida.
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.