Rubio can be a hero in the Zika fight

Miami Herald Editorial Board

In 2013, Sen. Marco Rubio, along Senate colleagues Charles Schumer, D., N.Y., left, and Sen. John McCain, R., Arizona, speaks about immigration reform legislation by the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight.”
In 2013, Sen. Marco Rubio, along Senate colleagues Charles Schumer, D., N.Y., left, and Sen. John McCain, R., Arizona, speaks about immigration reform legislation by the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight.” AP

On Tuesday, a woman gave birth to Florida’s first baby born with the now well-known birth defect associated with Zika. The mom, a citizen of Haiti, was infected outside of the United States, but her infant was born here with the abnormally small head that signals brain damage.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate failed to pass long-overdue legislation to fight Zika with a $1.1 billion infusion that very same day.

Ironic, huh? And another sorry display of politics as usual, unfortunately.

Senate Democrats blocked the spending bill because, despite containing the appropriation for Zika, it was also a minefield of Republican-backed funding cuts and policy changes that the Dems rightly found untenable. These included measures that would erect hurdles for women trying to access contraceptive services through Planned Parenthood and similar organizations; strip $540 million from the Affordable Care Act and weaken restrictions on the use of pesticides.

Senate GOP leaders didn’t deny the allegations that they had larded the spending bill measure to hobble the things they love to hate, but they blamed Democrats anyway for blocking the bill. Like we said, politics as usual.

This, however, presents the perfect opportunity for Sen. Marco Rubio, who wasn’t running for reelection until he decided that he was last week, to step into this breach and show his constituents once and for all that he is capable of acting in the best interests of something other than his career.

Sen. Rubio is well-positioned to make the case to his Republican colleagues that Florida and the rest of the nation need some congressional sanity in the fight against Zika. More important, research and prevention measures need funding now.

He can make clear that, in his state — Ground Zero for infection, of course — Zika’s debilitating nature is no longer just knocking at the door. With Florida’s first birth of a child with Zika-related microcephaly — the fifth born in the United States — Zika now has its foot in that door and, at the beginning of mosquito season, is poised to barge right in. The disease also can be spread via blood transfusions and by men to sexual partners. As the incidence HIV/AIDS surges in South Florida, the implications for Zika demand a sense of urgency.

On Wednesday, Florida’s Department of Health reported that the number of Zika cases that do not involve pregnant women stood at 191. But an additional 41 cases do involve pregnant women, a much more troubling proposition.

In 2013, Sen. Rubio skillfully showed his ability to step into the breach when he sought to bring consensus to the contentious issue of immigration reform. The effort didn’t succeed. But his joining forces with the likes of Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York — another “Gang of Eight” member — showed what he was capable of when trying to ease gridlock, which he himself has decried as frustrating.

Sen. Rubio gets it. Unfortunately, the vigor with which he works to serve his state seems to depend on his political needs. Earlier this year — OK, before he announced his reelection bid — he criticized Senate colleagues for trying to lowball President Obama’s $1.1 billion request to fight Zika. But this week? He was pointing his finger at the Democrats for blocking the funding bill, saying, the New York Times reported: “It’s a talking point that they want to take into the July Fourth recess, unfortunately.”

Sen. Rubio needs to dump the partisan claptrap. Zika is a real threat to his state, to his constituents. This challenge deserves a clean funding bill, devoid of partisan landmines. The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, doesn’t really care whom it stings.