RICHMOND, Va. — A Democratic vice presidential prospect is citing the Pope in making the case for allowing Planned Parenthood to access funds to fight Zika.
“The uniform focus for members of Congress should be, ‘Let’s solve the problem,’” Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said at a meeting in Richmond. “That is [the] challenge right now between the Senate and House.”
Kaine, a practicing Catholic whose Senate voting record shows support for abortion rights despite personal opposition, emphasized the importance of allowing funding from the proposed supplemental to combat Zika to flow to Planned Parenthood.
“Planned Parenthood is a primary health provider,” said Kaine, a top contender for the No. 2 slot on the Democratic ticket. “This is really at the core of dealing with the population that has been most at risk of Zika.”
Kaine alluded to comments Pope Francis made this year that opened the door to the use of contraceptives, generally opposed by the Catholic Church, to fight the Zika virus, which has been linked to severe birth defects.
The pope said when it comes to thwarting the risk posed by Zika to unborn children, "avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil, " according to new reports.
Kaine voted with Senate Democrats to block a House-Senate conference report designed to provide funding to combat Zika. Democrats objected to several provisions added to the bill, including one limiting funding for family planning organizations. Republicans have derided the Democratic vote as an appeal to “special interests.”
The Virginia Department of Health has probably never had as many national TV cameras in a conference room across the street from the State Capitol building as they did for Kaine’s visit Tuesday morning, when at least three networks made appearances.
But, that’s what happens when a sitting senator and former governor who is at the top of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential shortlist walks in the building.
Kaine said that aside from his day job as a senator, his only function as a Clinton campaign surrogate "is trying to help her win Virginia."
Kaine's appearance came just as FBI Director James B. Comey announced that he was recommending no charges at the end of a lengthy inquiry into Clinton's use of a personal email server and her handling of classified information as secretary of state.
"I never believed this was going to be something in the criminal realm," he told reporters after Comey's announcement.
In terms of his possible vice presidential nod, Kaine told a local Richmond TV reporter that "the speculation is nice." But he stressed his ties to the state capital, where he once served as the city's mayor before becoming Virginia's governor.
"If I'm good at anything in politics, it's because I learned it being a city councilman, and still have dear friends who still live here and wouldn't move anywhere else, and it's a great place," Kaine said.
The senator was at home at the health department office, talking with state and local medical officials at a roundtable discussion about the fight against Zika.
He recalled his time as governor, when he worked with the department on efforts to prepare the commonwealth for a potential outbreak of the H1N1 virus about a decade ago.
“Working with health professionals on that, having a plan, worrying about how much Tamiflu we had,” Kaine said. “That was a big headache producer.”
Fortunately, the H1N1 situation did not really materialize in Virginia the way that it might have, or as the mosquito-borne Zika virus still may as the summer moves along.
At Tuesday's briefing, Kaine showed himself to be a budget wonk, speaking at some length about how the federal budgeting process is ill-equipped to deal with emergencies that may turn up during a fiscal year.
The senator expressed frustration particularly with the decision by House Republicans to send over the anti-Zika conference report knowing full well that it would not get the 60 votes needed to overcome Democratic opposition on the Senate side. Republicans added provisions about birth control, the Confederate flag and other contentious issues.
"They know what the vote's going to be," Kaine said of the House GOP. "They're aware that it is a move on the chess board but not the last move on the chess board.
"I think we're going to get there," he added. "I think the Planned Parenthood thing was a little bit of saber-rattling and skirmishing, and I don't think we ought to be doing that when we're facing a public health emergency of this kind."