WASHINGTON ― Congress returned to work Tuesday the way it left for recess seven weeks ago: failing to pass Zika legislation that Republicans larded with culture war provisions.
The Senate passed a $1.1 billion bipartisan compromise to fund Zika efforts ― which was about $800 million short of what Democrats and the White House wanted ― but Republicans in the House objected to the measure. But rather than change the funding or insist on a different response from the administration, Republicans added provisions targeting Planned Parenthood and the Clean Water Act, as well as ones that would make cuts to Obamacare and preserve the right to fly the Confederate flag.
Senate Democrats refused to accept those provisions, and Republicans refused to remove them.
Upon lawmakers’ return this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) resumed the debate exactly where he left it ― by accusing Democrats of blocking Zika funding and professing to be baffled over their objections.
“It’s hard to explain why, despite their own calls for funding, Senate Democrats decided to block a bill that would keep pregnant women and babies safer from Zika,” McConnell said before bringing up the same defeated measure.
“Our colleagues across the aisle can point to a series of partisan excuses, but the bottom line is this: There is no good explanation for blocking these public health and national security funding bills,” he added, also referring to a vote on an unrelated defense bill.
While Congress was on recess, the first local transmissions of the disease were recorded in Florida, and health officials were forced to raid other programs to respond, including delaying vaccine development efforts.
Zika can cause severe birth defects, including microcephaly.
Democrats again stood firm Tuesday in their opposition to the riders in the bill, which fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance, going down 52 to 46. The exercise accomplished little more than giving GOP advertisement writers the ability to say Democrats voted against a Zika bill repeatedly.
For their part, Democrats slammed the GOP for freighting the measure with extraneous material and then going on the longest summer break in six decades.
“I’m still stunned that the Republican leader decided to have a seven-week vacation, and it was more important to do that than funding our nation’s Zika response,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.
“Earlier this year, Democrats tried in vain to bring Republicans to the realization that Zika was imperiling the health of all, but especially women of child-bearing age,” Reid added. “Republicans were more interested in attacking Planned Parenthood and flying the Confederate flag ― can’t make that stuff up; that’s really the truth ― than protecting women and babies from this awful virus.”
While federal health officials juggled money around to keep the most vital Zika efforts running, they have warned that money is set to run out by the end of the month. At some point, Congress will have to give up the partisan provisions or let the entire Zika response lapse, even while mosquito season continues in large parts of the country.
The failure is a growing problem for Republicans, especially those from Florida who have been pushing for a clean Zika bill that would probably pass the House if it were brought up for a vote. Some Republicans have also been looking at attaching the Zika funding to a stopgap government funding bill that needs to pass by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government running.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the likely next Democratic leader, said the problem for the GOP was that hard-line conservatives simply cannot be satisfied, and that GOP leaders should stop listening to them.
“Let’s stop the games, and not let a few dozen people on the far right block Zika funding,” Schumer said, noting that the original Senate bill got 89 votes. “We should pass the Senate bill ASAP.”