Given how dysfunctional Congress is, we expect partisan battles to sometimes block important legislation.
Still, the current standoff over $1.1 billion to fight the Zika virus is absurd – and dangerous.
Lawmakers ought to be ashamed – if they have any shame left – that they’re holding hostage essential funding for what is a real public health emergency.
Zika, mainly spread by tropical mosquitoes, can cause horrific birth defects. There are already more than 800 cases in the mainland U.S., including 300 pregnant women. And prime mosquito season is fast approaching.
Yet on Tuesday, the Senate deadlocked on a bill that includes $476 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ramp up mosquito control and $230 million for the National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine.
Though there have been no confirmed cases of transmission by mosquitoes here, Zika is already an epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean. On Tuesday, health officials in Florida, which is the hardest-hit state so far, announced the first case of microcephaly – a baby born with an unusually small head – to a mother who contracted the virus in Haiti.
It’s not like this crisis sneaked up on Congress. President Barack Obama asked in February to provide $1.9 billion for anti-Zika efforts. More than four months later, Congress still hasn’t come through.
In May, different versions were passed by the Senate and House, which included only $622 million. At the insistence of the House, the current bill would divert money from other health programs. That’s bad enough.
The hang-up revolves around unrelated provisions negotiated by Republicans who control the House and Senate. Democrats object to what they call “poison pills” – one that they say would restrict funding for Planned Parenthood to provide birth control to women in Puerto Rico threatened by Zika, another that would temporarily lift restrictions on pesticide spraying, and yet another that would block a ban on displaying the Confederate flag at military cemeteries.
All these issues should be dealt with separately, if at all. Funding for military and veterans’ facilities is also being held up by this stalemate.
Senate GOP leaders are holding out hope for another vote next week and a resolution before Congress leaves for a seven-week recess. But since it’s an election year, nothing is certain.
If lawmakers don’t act soon, any widespread outbreak that leads to deformed babies will be on them. They don’t want that on their conscience, do they?