Politics

Senate Democrats Block $1.1 Billion to Fight Zika

Object to provisions on birth control, pesticide use, Confederate flag

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and other members of the Democratic leadership are calling for new Zika talks. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Senate blocked a plan Tuesday to spend $1.1. billion to fight the Zika virus, as Democrats objected to added provisions that would limit funding for birth control, allow pesticide spraying near water sources, and raise the Confederate flag.  

The conference report on Zika spending, which Democrats said was developed without their input , failed to receive the 60 votes needed to shut off debate.  

The vote came as a Florida hospital reported its first case of a baby born with Zika-related birth defects. The child was born to a Haitian mother who traveled to Florida to deliver the baby.  

"Here's where we are, we have a public health crisis descending on this country," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, accusing Democrats of playing "political games." He said the Senate would reconsider the same measure next week after returning from recess July 7.  

"This Republican conference report is disgraceful, shameful," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said earlier. He and other Senate Democrats sent a letter asking their GOP colleagues to work together on a bipartisan plan they could all support.  

"We are fully committed to working with you to negotiate a response that sufficiently rises to this challenge. To that end we are ready and willing to immediately join you in a new round of negotiations on a truly effective, bipartisan package," wrote the members of the Senate Democratic leadership in a letter to McConnell and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.  

In addition to Reid, Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Charles E. Schumer of New York and Patty Murray of Washington signed the letter.  

The Obama administration on Tuesday said it would "welcome" renewed talks by lawmakers to find a compromise Zika funding bill. "Congress still has time to act before they leave for their summer recess," a White House official said shortly after the Senate vote.

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio said Tuesday he was prepared to stay through the Fourth of July weekend to work on a compromise measure.

"We have to do something," Rubio told reporters. "I hope we can just revote on it and people will change their minds."

But the White House official signaled that the administration is sticking to its stance that only a $1.9 billion bill that matches its initial request will get President Barack Obama's signature. The official urged lawmakers to pass "a fully funded Zika supplemental request — unlike the irresponsible, underfunded and purely partisan bill currently making its way through Congress."  

Murray, who helped develop a Senate Zika spending package last month, has said Republicans cut her out of the conference negotiations  on the aid package aimed at the mosquito-borne virus which passed the House in the middle of the night last week amid a Democratic sit-in in that chamber over gun violence.  

[ Congress Failing Zika Test ]  

The Senate letter cites several objectionable provisions in the Republican plan, including limits to funding for providers of birth control and language that "would weaken clean water and air protections by waiving portions of the Clean Water Act," when it comes to pesticide use.  

Senate Democrats have also expressed concern about the decision to strip language barring the display of the Confederate flag on certain days at Veterans Affairs Department facilities. That's part of the regular Military Construction-VA spending bill that's been tied to the anti-Zika funding.  

[ Confederate Flag Ban Vanishes During Democratic Sit-In ]  

The White House has pledged to veto the measure that comes in response to the administration's request for $1.9 billion to fight the spread of the virus, which can cause birth defects in infants and, in rare cases, death in adults.  

Reid said there were already 2,900 U.S. cases of Zika, most of them in Puerto Rico, and eight babies born with Zika-related birth defects: one with a "shrunken head" and another with a "caved in skull."  

Democrats called the bill's restriction on funding for providers of birth control services "a backdoor way of restricting care from women’s health providers like Planned Parenthood and family planning centers that would have serious consequences for women’s health."  

Senate Republicans have played down concerns that the Democrats have raised about the conference report, especially the concerns about water quality.  

"The final conference report provides targeted regulatory relief for local mosquito organizations. The targeted relief sunsets after six months. During that period, all mosquito pesticide applications will still be covered by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act," a GOP fact sheet said.  

[ House and Senate Republicans Reach Deal to Fight Zika ]  

The Democrats would also prefer that the Zika aid be designated as emergency spending and not offset with cuts in other areas.  

But even as Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas was telling reporters Monday that "this is it," when it comes to a chance for Democrats to vote to fight the mosquito-borne illness with the package, conservatives were raising alarms about the offsets themselves.  

Several GOP senators said they needed to review the package more carefully after a Congressional Budget Office report cast doubts on whether the savings used to pay for part of the bill were derived from money that would never be spent.  

"We've got to do something with Zika and I am very frustrated that we're just going to borrow the money. So every time there's a problem in America, we need to spend an unexpected $2 billion," Sen. Jeff Sessions said.  

The Alabama Republican said that might cause him to vote against cloture on the bill, but "we need to get something done."  

zika-mosquito-maps 6-22-011    

Bridget Bowman, John T. Bennett and Kelly Mejdrich contributed to this report.

Contact Lesniewski at NielsLesniewski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @nielslesniewski .

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