Back in February, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus to be an international public health emergency. President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency funds to fight the virus, which was rapidly spreading across Latin America and heading towards the United States.
Fast forward to the end of June. It’s reaching peak mosquito season, yet Congress is no closer to getting anything done. On Tuesday, a $1.1 billion funding package for Zika failed in the Senate. With the Senate on the brink of their July 4th recess and the House already out, desperately needed funding remains at best weeks away.
The situation is classic political warfare. Despite experts warning of the encroaching public health emergency, the road to pass some form of comprehensive Zika funding has been marred by partisanship from the beginning. And it’s women who will ultimately suffer the consequences.
Republican lawmakers have been resisting approving new funding ever since President Obama’s initial request, arguing instead that the money ought to be pulled from the pool allocated to fight the Ebola outbreak. Public health experts warned this would be disastrous: Even though the worst of the outbreak is over, the public health work is not complete. Initially, the White House pushed back — but in the face of continued intransigence, approved shifting $600 million in Ebola funding to cover gaps before a comprehensive bill could be approved.
Republicans In Congress Are Setting Up The World For A Public Health DisasterHealth by CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman The White House has decided to combat the Zika virus by transferring funds…thinkprogress.orgThen, after three months of stalemate, Congress finally brought votes on Zika-related bills in May. But while the Senate passed a bipartisan bill approving $1.1 billion in Zika funding, the GOP-controlled House countered with a meager $622 million, mostly cut from other federal programs. Meanwhile, the House passed the Zika Vector Control Act, which would have rolled back EPA protections under the guise of combating Zika.
Last week, the House finally passed a $1.1 billion Zika proposal to match the Senate’s offer — bringing up the bill in the midst of the Democratic sit-in to protest GOP inaction on gun control. While identical in net funding, however, this bill was not the same as the one that passed the Senate. As a compromise between Senate and House Republicans, it was stuffed with what Democrats called “poison pill” political provisions — partisan provisions that actually do little to advance the fight against Zika, and in some cases limit how much the money can help women and children.
The legislation allocates money for mosquito control programs, vaccines, and diagnostics, but doesn’t include funding for condoms or contraceptives. To make matters worse, the House bill excludes $50 million meant for maternal and child health, bars Planned Parenthood from receiving any funding for birth control services, and cuts $540 million from Obamacare. (For some reason, it also contains a provision allowing the Confederate Flag to fly at veterans cemeteries.)
While Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said he hoped Democrats would “rise above politics” and pass the bill, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest accused the Republicans of “put[ing] political games ahead of the health and safety of the American people, particularly pregnant women and their babies.” Senate Democrats were outraged over the provisions, and the White House threatened a veto.
So the funding bill was rejected by the Senate in a 52 to 48 vote. Democrats urged renewed negotiations, but Rep. Cornyn (R-TX) — whose home state of Texas is predicted to be one of the hardest hit by Zika — told reporters that “there’s not going to be another opportunity to deal with this for the near future.”
After the vote, both sides pointed fingers at each other. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Democrats were concerning themselves over “minor provisions” and said there’s “no reason they should put partisan politics above the health of pregnant women and babies.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), meanwhile, accused Republicans of catering to the extreme wing of their party by adding the poison pill provisions amounting to “nothing more than a goodie bag for the fringes of the Republican party.”
In an election season, each party is hoping to turn the funding struggle — and failure — into a victory at the ballot box this fall. The tactic pulls a page from a similar playbook used during the Ebola crisis back in 2014, when Republicans criticized the Obama administration’s response to the public health issue, contributing to a harrowing blow to the Democratic Party when Republicans took control of the Senate. Now, Democrats are hoping to turn the tables and win back control of the House in November.
It’s unclear who will win the political chess match. What is clear, however, is who loses: The estimated two million women who could be affected by Zika in the United States this summer.
With no congressional funding allocation for Zika during the dreaded mosquito season and an ever-widening chasm between both parties, the public health consequences of Zika — which has been linked with severe brain abnormalities in babies when mothers are infected — are grim. So far, there are already 820 reported cases of the Zika virus in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
“If we don’t get new money, we won’t be able to do things at a pace that is necessary and appropriate to the urgency of this threat,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is working on three potential vaccines against the Zika virus, told the New York Times. In May, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Friedan warned that that without congressional funding, researchers were scraping by.
“Three months in an epidemic is an eternity,” Frieden said then. It’s now been five months — with no compromise in sight.
Celisa Calacal is an intern with ThinkProgress.