A bill that would have allocated $1.1 billion to combat the Zika virus lost a vote in the Senate on Tuesday amid partisan bickering.
The legislation, which also included funding for Veterans Affairs health programs and military construction, failed to reach the 60 votes needed, with Democrats and Republicans voting largely along party lines, by 52-48.
It now appears unlikely Congress will approve an emergency funding package for Zika before the fall, if at all.
The bill’s defeat was a blow to Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who played a key role in shaping the legislation as the chairman of a Senate health appropriations subcommittee and as a member of a conference committee working to reconcile House of Representatives and Senate versions.
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“We have run out of time,” said Blunt. He called Senate Democrats’ decision to block a vote on the bill “shameful.”
Democrats argued Republicans had locked them out of bipartisan negotiations on the bill and inserted a number of “poison pill” measures, including cuts to Obamacare and Ebola research and restrictions on federal grants for Planned Parenthood and other “nongovernmental entities” that provide contraceptives.
Democrats also complained that the bill would ease environmental regulations for pesticides and strip a ban on the Confederate flag flying at cemeteries, passed by the House.
The White House had threatened a veto.
“This bill was designed to fail,” said Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.
Blunt distanced himself Tuesday from the controversial “poison pill” language.
The senator said on Capitol Hill that he was not in the room when the measures were added. But he did sign off on them.
“Most conferences at the end of the day are negotiated by the chairmen and the ranking members of the full committee and that would not have included me either, so I couldn’t really comment on what that discussion was,” Blunt said.
Blunt said he had no problem with the measures and that Democrats didn’t want to offset the bill’s cost.
But he indicated he was still open to working with Democrats to develop a solution, even as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stressed that the bill’s language wouldn’t change.
“We have to deal with this,” Blunt said. “Everybody has to understand that this has to be dealt with, that it’s a bicameral legislature and nobody gets everything they want, including me.”
This is a real public health emergency; not an opportunity to score political points.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Blunt had championed a bipartisan version of the Zika bill, co-sponsored with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, that passed the Senate with 89 votes in May. It included $1.1 billion in emergency funds for Zika that were not offset by cuts elsewhere, and it did not include provisions that would have affected Planned Parenthood funding.
The House version had proposed about half a billion for Zika. President Barack Obama wanted $1.9 billion.
Blunt said Senate Democrats had misrepresented aspects of the compromise to reconcile the House and Senate bills to hide that their opposition was politically motivated.
“It’s important that the Congress get back to figuring out how to get things done and how not to create obstacles that you don’t need to create,” Blunt said. “And in fact, if you’re real reason (for opposition) is paying for it, just admit your real concern is paying for it rather than trying to come up with other reasons that really aren’t justified by any set of facts.”
Democrats shot back that it was Republicans who were playing political games.
“Republicans walked away from bipartisan talks. They kicked Democrats out of the room,” said Murray, who, like Blunt, had been assigned to the conference committee.
“The saddest thing is this was really cynical what (Republicans) did,” said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who voted against the bill Tuesday. “They purposely put things in the bill that they knew would kill it so they could pretend they were doing something about Zika.”
Although the bill didn’t use the words Planned Parenthood, by forbidding any nongovernmental entity from using the funds, it essentially prohibits Planned Parenthood from helping women avoid pregnancy, McCaskill said.
She said the language was added “in the dark of night without any Democrats in the room.”
The bill then came up for a vote in the House in the early morning hours without debate. It passed in the midst of shouting and protests during a sit-in staged by House Democrats, who were demanding a vote on gun control legislation.
Blunt’s Democratic opponent in November’s elections, Jason Kander, already is attacking the senator over the bill’s failure.
“Senator Blunt has taken four months to put together a bill that not only fails to fully fund the Zika response, but also plays political games with a health emergency,” Kander said in a statement. “Agreeing to include a provision that would block contraceptive funding, a critical tool in combating a sexually transmitted virus like Zika, shows that Senator Blunt is more interested in appeasing his party than addressing this pressing emergency. This is exactly why we need a new generation of leadership in Congress.”
In response, Blunt’s campaign spokesman slammed Kander for supporting Senate Democrats in defeating a paid-for funding measure to fight Zika.
“It’s no surprise that Jason Kander would support the partisan position of his D.C. benefactors,” said the spokesman, Tate O'Connor. “But it's shameful that he would do so at the expense of a balanced and reasonable compromise that provides record funding for our veterans programs and national response to the Zika virus.”
More than 819 cases of Zika have been reported in the continental United States by people who contracted the disease while traveling abroad. Zika infections have been linked to birth defects such as microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads.
McConnell said after the vote Tuesday that he would submit the bill for another vote after senators returned from the July Fourth break.
“When we get back, after we’ve had time to think about it all, we’ll address this matter again and hopefully respond, as our constituents all across America are asking us to respond to this pending health care crisis,” he said.
Democrats, however, said that if they were forced to vote on the same bill again, they would block it again.