“I don’t know what universe my friend is living in. What does he think? Does he think we’re all stupid, the American people are dumb? They’re not, they understand what’s going on here.”
So argued Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nebraska, in reference to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the latest failure to pass legislation aimed at combatting the Zika virus. In reference to this same failed attempt, McConnell said: “Pregnant women all across America are looking at this with dismay, utter dismay, as we sit here in partisan gridlock manufactured by the other side.”
Allegations of intentional partisan gridlock abound on both sides of the aisle following Republicans’ failure to pass a $1.1 billion federal spending bill that included Zika funding on Tuesday, June 28. The Senate voted 52-48 to pass the bill (which had passed the House earlier), falling short of the 60 votes needed. Now health officials worry that there will be no attempt to raise and vote on a funding bill again before Congress’ seven-week recess, starting Friday, July 15. This would postpone all federal legislation relating to Zika funds to September, post-peak mosquito season.
Despite months of Democrats pushing for a vote on Zika funding, all Democratic Senators voted against the $1.1 billion bill due to the addition of so-called “poison pills,” attached provisions in-line with the Republican platform. One such provision restricted the funding of Planned Parenthood and other women’s health clinics that provide contraceptive services; as the Zika virus can be sexually transmitted, this funding was part of the plan to combat the virus. Other provisions included loosening restrictions on pesticides and weakening clean water regulations, as well as the removal of a provision to stop the Confederate flag from flying at federal veterans cemeteries. It also stipulated that the Zika funds would come from reapportioning money from Ebola virus funds and from funds marked for Affordable Care Act implementation in U.S. territories. Due to these provisions, Democrats refused to support the bill and Zika funding continues to stall.
In a debate that has stretched months and seen frustrated, acrimonious exchanges like those above, efforts to combat the Zika virus have repeatedly been renewed, stalled, and then failed again. In February, the World Health Organization declared that the Zika virus was a public health emergency. Soon thereafter, President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding to counter the virus’ proliferation. While it waited for Congress to act on the request, the White House reapportioned $600 million from the Ebola funds and funds from other health programs to address mosquito management and to begin phase one of vaccinal clinical trials. According to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, this funding is set to run out in late July or early August, leaving the country’s future response to Zika virus in Congress’ hands.
There are 1,133 registered cases of Zika infection in the U.S. to date, among whom are 320 pregnant U.S. women currently monitored by the CDC. All these cases are travel-related, occurring when travelers enter the U.S. from Zika-affected areas, although health experts warn this state is not likely to last. As more travelers enter the U.S. with Zika, the chances of mosquitos in the U.S. contracting, carrying, and spreading the virus heighten. The Zika virus is known for its effect on infants whose mothers contract the virus while pregnant. Many cases result in microcephaly, a birth defect in which the infant’s head is smaller than normal, often causing an underdeveloped brain that is linked to seizures, developmental delays, and intellectual disabilities. There is no vaccine or cure for the virus.
Congress’ inability to approve funds has health officials across the country worrying about the rest of the summer. In the absence of federal funds, efforts to combat Zika become a state and county problem, forcing them to reappropriate funds from other health programs. Congressmen from Southern states have tended to be the most vocal in pushing for funding as Zika’s threat is most immediate to their constituents, especially as mosquito season reaches its height.
Florida’s role in the national frustration surrounding the lack of Zika funding is particularly politically significant. The state faces a higher, more immediate threat level than most states and Floridians’ growing frustration could have a major effect in the fall; in addition to a competitive Senate race, it is poised to be perhaps the most major battleground state of the presidential election. Predictably, Democrats and Republicans are divided on whom, exactly, comes off with the worse image following the protracted debate, with the former deriding Republican leadership for being unable to pass a public health funding bill and the latter lambasting Democrats for playing partisan politics.
Looking towards the beginning of summer recess, it seems as if a renegotiated bill acceptable to both parties is unlikely to occur. Prior to the June vote, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) warned Democrats that there would be no negotiations on a new Zika bill. Reid predicted his Republican colleagues would bring up the defeated legislation for another vote. “They’ll force yet another failed vote on this cynical legislation and then pack their bags for the longest Senate vacation since 1954,” he said.
Some, however, like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), hold out hope: following the failed vote in June, he predicted that the Republicans would agree to negotiate in order to return home for the summer with a victory. “Republicans will come back in a few weeks with their tails between their legs,” he said. “Why they don’t avoid that embarrassment is beyond me.”
Congress’ response (or lack thereof) to this public health emergency leaves much to be desired, and the vitriolic rhetoric surrounding it has become emblematic of legislative efforts heading into a particularly charged election.