Health Care

Florida Republicans urge passage of Zika funding bill

Gov. Rick Scott addresses members of the media in Washington, D.C., after lobbying members of Florida’s Congressional delegation to support federal funding for the Zika virus crisis.
Gov. Rick Scott addresses members of the media in Washington, D.C., after lobbying members of Florida’s Congressional delegation to support federal funding for the Zika virus crisis. Tampa Bay Times

Florida’s usually divided congressional delegation closed ranks around the state’s growing Zika crisis Wednesday as key members met with visiting Republican Gov. Rick Scott, then urged passage of a law to provide $1.9 billion in emergency federal money.

President Barack Obama requested the money in February to pay for research and treatment of the virus, which now is believed to cause birth defects in children whose mothers contracted the disease while pregnant. But Republicans have blocked the bill.

Even as Scott, a Republican, made the rounds on Capitol Hill, Florida health officials announced three new travel-related cases of Zika in the state, two in Volusia County and one in Orange County.

Following confirmation of two new infections in Miami-Dade earlier in the week, Florida has 112 cases, more than any other state.

“This is an emergency,” Scott told reporters after meeting with Sen. Marco Rubio and other Florida lawmakers. “We need to be dealing with it now. In Florida, we want funding as fast as we can get it.”

On Thursday, Scott is scheduled to meet with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell to discuss the burgeoning crisis. She traveled to Puerto Rico last month to see how it is handling some 700 cases there.

Scott called on members of Congress to hold a hearing on Zika in Miami.

“Florida is going to be the epicenter,” Scott said. “We need help right now.”

Shortly before meeting with the governor, Rubio took to the Senate floor and again asked his Republican colleagues to move Obama’s funding request.

“Inaction on this is quite frankly inexcusable, and I don’t believe voters will excuse us for refusing to act on this,” said Rubio, a former Republican presidential candidate. “The impact on pregnant women and their unborn children is devastating and indisputable. That alone is reason to act.”

Rubio cited new research indicating that in addition to microcephaly, a condition in which a newborn’s head is abnormally small, Zika might cause brain damage in infants.

Florida is home to 1 million people from Puerto Rico, where the first U.S. death from Zika was confirmed two weeks ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The island territory is battling more than 700 infections of the virus.

“The people of Puerto Rico are American citizens,” Rubio said on the Senate floor. “They travel to this country extensively. It is our responsibility to also fight and care for them.”

Republican lawmakers in the GOP-controlled House and Senate have blocked Obama’s appropriations measure in disputes over finding spending offsets to avoid increasing the federal debt.

Scott, however, said those kinds of partisan disputes must be set aside. He met with Rubio, Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo of South Florida, and other House members from the state.

“As representatives from the state of Florida, we understand the real threat that Zika poses to our families and neighbors,” Curbelo, a first-term congressman from Miami, said after meeting with Scott.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a frequent critic of Scott as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, praised him for trying to persuade fellow Republicans in Congress to act.

“While I have serious disagreements with Governor Scott on health care policy, I am glad to see him taking the threat of the Zika virus seriously,” she said.

Urging Republicans “to stop dragging their feet,” she demanded passage of legislation implementing the Obama funding request.

At a White House briefing Wednesday, Obama press secretary Josh Earnest noted that the bipartisan National Governors Association had sent Congress a plea for Zika funding.

“Congress is past due in making this kind of commitment to America’s safety and the public health of the American people,” Earnest said.