Partisan politics block Zika funding in Senate

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., left, face reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday as the Senate split along party lines and left a $1.1 billion proposal to fight the Zika virus in limbo.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., left, face reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday as the Senate split along party lines and left a $1.1 billion proposal to fight the Zika virus in limbo. AP

Senate Democrats and Republicans from Florida and beyond traded caustic recriminations Tuesday after a $1.1 billion bill for Zika prevention failed to gain enough votes to clear a procedural hurdle.

Democrats accused Republicans of placing “poison pill” provisions in the bill unrelated to Zika to cut money for women’s health and impose abortion restrictions. Republicans denied those claims and said the Democrats couldn’t accept compromise.

Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson warned that while Florida and other southern states have so far borne the brunt of the Zika virus, it will spread to other parts of the country.

“If you don’t believe that this Zika crisis is an emergency, well, just wait, but the telltale signs are coming now,” he said in an angry speech on the Senate floor.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, mounting a belated Senate re-election bid after his failed presidential run, charged Democrats with threatening his state and Puerto Rico, which together have more than 90 percent of all Zika cases in the United States and its territories.

“It’s a failure of both parties in this town,” Rubio said.

Florida has 213 outbreaks of the virus. On Tuesday, state health officials confirmed the birth of the first baby born with Zika-related microcephaly, which causes unusually small heads in infants. A day earlier they announced three new cases, in Broward, Collier and Miami-Dade counties.

Casting ballots almost entirely along party lines, the Senate voted 52-48 to bring up the Zika measure, failing to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster, so the underlying bill was not considered.

The House passed the $1.1 billion measure last week, and the Senate had approved a bill providing the same amount last month.

However, the legislation that came back to the Senate on Tuesday had provisions unrelated to Zika — called riders — attached to it.

Most of the riders were spending cuts for other programs to offset the increased costs for research, prevention and treatment of Zika, a virus carried primarily by one type of mosquito but also spread through sexual contact.

Among the contentious provisions were reducing Ebola funds by $107 million, decreasing money for Obamacare by $543 million and placing restrictions on publicly funded abortions.

In an attempt to make the Zika measure more politically palatable to Democrats, Republicans combined it with appropriations for veterans and military construction projects.

The $1.1 billion for Zika was already a compromise negotiated between the House and Senate, both of which Republicans control.

In February, President Barack Obama sent Congress a package requesting $1.9 billion to combat the virus.

After the House moved a measure providing one-third that amount, many Senate Democrats reluctantly voted last month for the $1.1 billion bill.

Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Palm Beach Democrat seeking Rubio’s Senate seat, accused Rubio of “playing politics” by backing legislation with provisions unrelated to Zika and clauses unacceptable to Democrats.

“The number of Zika cases in Florida and across the United States is increasing daily,” Murphy said. “It is unacceptable that Republicans are prioritizing partisan attacks on women’s health instead of fully addressing this crisis.”

Murphy is running against Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando in the Senate Democratic primary. The winner will likely face Rubio, whose major Republican opponents dropped out after he had a change of heart last week and announced he will seek re-election after all.

Rep. David Jolly, an Indian Shores Republican, tried to stay above the partisan fray in a letter he sent to House Speaker Paul Ryan after the Senate procedural vote failed.

“The debate has now gone on too long,” Jolly wrote. “We cannot let our differences lead us to inaction.”

He added: “We must implement a response plan and quickly resolve this matter before the threat becomes a crisis.”

Ryan, however, gave little indication of being willing to work with Democrats.

“This is ridiculous,” Ryan said after the failed Senate vote. “Senate Democrats, after demanding Zika funding for months and supporting this exact funding level for weeks, now block it to create a political issue.”

Among all states, only New York has more Zika cases than Florida. The two states have by far the largest Puerto Rican populations, about 1 million apiece.

Puerto Rico has 1,809 cases of Zika, almost all of them travel related. Many of the cases in Florida and New York are from Puerto Ricans in those states visiting the island or from their friends and relatives visiting them.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democrat, lashed into his GOP colleagues after Tuesday’s vote.

“If there was ever a bill designed to fail, it’s what the Republicans have put together on Zika today,” he said.

James Rosen: 202-383-6157; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose