On September 6, 2016, amid urgent calls from federal health officials and medical leaders warning of the dire need for funds, the Senate failed for the third time to pass the $1.1 billion Zika funding bill. Why did this happen and what are the critical issues involved? What is the history of this impasse?
On February 22, 2016, President Obama called on Congress to appropriate $1.9 billion for fighting the Zika threat to the country. These funds would be used to support research on vaccine and diagnostic development, on surveillance for mosquitoes, and for educating health providers and the public about the Zika disease.
In response to the White House and Democrats urging, the House and Senate Republicans put together a funding package of $1.1 billion without input from the Democrats. This bill was passed by the House in May. However, it was defeated on June 28 by a 52-46 vote in the Senate, where the Republicans do not have a majority. The Democrats objected to the cuts of $540 million on the Affordable Care Act, and accused the Republicans of attempting to jam through politically-charged provisions in this must-pass legislation. In particular were cuts to Planned Parenthood for providing contraception, and weakening of environmental restrictions on pesticide use.
Democrats in the Senate defeated the legislation a second time by voting to maintain their weeks-long filibuster through July 14, at which time Congress would recess for seven weeks. This resulted in no funding for the Zika emergency during the summer months when mosquito populations become more active.
The Democrats blocked it again in September because the bill would stop funding for clinics run by a Planned Parenthood partner, ProFamilias, in Puerto Rico, which is in the midst of a Zika epidemic. They claimed that the very program that is needed for prevention and treatment of the disease is being stripped of funding. But Republicans say that funds are provided for hospitals and public health clinics, although not to women’s health clinics like those operated by Planned Parenthood.
Amid desperate calls by public health officials and public reaction against both Republicans and Democrats for carrying on a partisan fight with a public health crisis, Republican senators are now crafting a spending bill which is needed to keep the government running after its current funding ends this month. They are proposing to work with Democrats and to include funding until December 9 that will provide for the Zika crisis. This will give time for Congress to develop and pass a targeted spending bill on the Zika for the 2017 fiscal year.
Valuable time has already been lost on research for vaccines, on the study of the thousands of infected pregnant women, and on preventive measures in susceptible areas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that as of September 1, there are 671 pregnant women in the US with lab evidence of Zika virus infection, and this number is 1080 for US territories. There were 17 live born infants with birth defects in the US and one in the territories. There were also five pregnancy losses with birth defects in the US, and one in the territories. On September 7, the number of Zika virus disease cases numbered 2,964 in the US and 15,869 in the territories.