Senate Stalls Zika Funding Laden With Partisan Riders

WASHINGTON — A spending bill that included cash to combat the Zika virus failed in the Senate Tuesday, mired in partisan add-ons that targeted women’s health service providers and sought to allow the flying of the Confederate flag.

The $1.1 billion in funding for the nation’s Zika response was attached to a larger funding bill that would pay for military construction and veterans affairs.

That measure had passed in the Senate on a bipartisan vote earlier in the year, but it differed from the version that passed the House, which had less money for combatting the disease.

To align the separate measures, Republicans in both chambers working in a conference committee wrote a new version of the bill that excluded Democrats’ concerns. It passed on a party line with no hearings or debate in the House last week while Democrats staged a sit-in there over guns.

The GOP bill would pay for the Zika response with $750 million in cuts elsewhere, including taking more than $100 million from the Ebola response, and more than $500 million from an Affordable Care Act fund.

It also bars the money from going to contraceptive services for women in Zika-afflicted areas, and to groups such as Planned Parenthood. Zika is most threatening to pregnant women, whose babies can suffer from microcephaly and other irreversible problems while they are in the womb. There are nearly 2,700 people infected with the virus in the United States and its territories, including nearly 500 pregnant women. 

The GOP version of the bill also eliminates a rule that bars the flying of Confederate flags at veterans’ cemeteries. Further, it waives environmental rules to allow the increased spraying of pesticides in waterways, although Zika-carrying mosquitoes do not breed in moving rivers and ponds. They prefer stagnant water, such as in old tires, cans or bottle caps.

The bill needed 60 votes to advance, but only got 52. No Democrats voted for it. Two Republicans, Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and James Lankford (Okla.), also voted against the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) expressed outrage at the failed vote.

“Here we are in an utterly absurd position, of playing political games, as this public health crisis mounts in our country,” McConnell said, adding that he will bring the bill back after the July 4 break. “I hope that our Democratic friends, upon reflection … will come back with a different attitude.”

The bill is also $800 million short of the $1.9 billion the White House asked for in February.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) countered McConnell by saying that the Democrats had tried repeatedly to pass Zika funding, but Republicans objected five times, including once when they tried to use Zika to extract cuts to Obamacare.

“I don’t know what universe my friend is living in. What does he think, we’re all stupid, the American people are dumb? They’re not, they understand what’s going on here,” Reid said, arguing that Republicans were trying to extract as many partisan concessions for their base as they could.

“I’ve been here a long time. I don’t ever remember anything as outrageous, as shameful as this piece of legislation,” Reid said.

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