After months of congressional debate over the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion request to tackle Zika, a spending bill that would have delivered $1.1 billion for Zika has failed in the Senate amid partisan squabbling. Democrats blocked the legislation over concerns about Environmental Protection Agency provisions and Planned Parenthood funding.
“The House Zika bill is a disaster,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., after the House passed the bill. “Not only does it take $500 million in health-care funding away from Puerto Rico, it limits access to birth-control services needed to help curb the spread of the virus and prevent terrible birth defects. This is not a serious solution.”
Fellow Democrats agreed: A 52-48 vote prevented an up-or-down vote on the bill in the Senate. Democrats said that the bill’s language effectively shut out Planned Parenthood from receiving funds related to family-planning initiatives included in the overall effort to stem the spread of Zika. Cases are expected to spread in parts of the United States this summer, and it’s likely that Puerto Rico will see a major spike in infections.
According to the bill, money set aside for grants could be used “for health services provided by public-health departments, hospitals or reimbursed through public health plans.” Planned Parenthood is a private health-care provider and would be shut out from the grants. The Republicans did not deny the Democrats claim, but rebutted the idea put forward by Nelson and others that it amounted to limiting birth control services. At least $40 million in the bill would go directly to 20 health centers. And the federally funded Preven network of family-planning clinics would be eligible for grant funds.
“I can’t imagine a more disgraceful vote than what some of our colleagues across the aisle have cast to deny funding for this impending public health crisis. I hope they’ll reconsider,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on the floor of the Senate following the vote.
Even if the bill passed, the White House would likely veto it. The administration echoed the concerns of Democratic senators and added that the $1.1 billion bill falls short of the $1.9 billion it requested. It also would have taken money from the funds dedicated to responding to the West Africa Ebola outbreak – a tactic proposed by some Republican leaders months ago and swiftly rejected by the White House.
“We urge Republicans to stop turning this into a political football, to actually get to work and come up with a proposal that’s going to serve the American people,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said to the media. “Money is desperately needed to fight Zika because mosquito control, a central element of efforts to combat the virus, is spotty and underfunded.”
As is often the case, both political parties are half-right. An analysis by PolitiFact of Nelson’s claim shows that Planned Parenthood affiliates in Puerto Rico would not get money through the bill. That is problematic because the Profamilias clinics, the Planned Parenthood chapter in Puerto Rico, excel at reaching young and poor women, a group at high risk of getting Zika. And while the bill does provide significant funding to other clinics across the island, areas with little or no access to health services are likely to be missed regardless of how the funding is structured.
Leaders from both political parties tried to blame each other for the failure of the bill and the inability to support the fight against Zika. Time is running out to pass the bill – August is a recess month, and July will be interrupted by party conventions to nominate presidential candidates. It leaves only a few weeks to strike a deal as Zika poses an increasing threat to U.S. citizens.