Blame Game Over Congressional Zika Response Heats Up

Senate Democrats suggest cutting recess short to address funding

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons plays with seven-month-old Max Huijbregts of Washington before the start of a May news conference to demand emergency funding to combat the spread of the Zika virus in the United States. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republicans and Democrats on Thursday continued bashing each other for a lack of congressional action to combat the Zika virus. Both sides failed to reach an agreement on a spending package before leaving town in July for a seven-week recess.  

In a letter to Republican leaders, Senate Democrats again suggested cutting their recess short to return to the Capitol to pass new funding for Zika. Also Thursday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan wrote an op-ed column for USA Today defending the House-adopted conference report on Zika spending that was blocked by Senate Democrats in July over their objections to offsets and policy language dealing with contraception, environmental protections and more.  

“Republican congressional leaders should call both the Senate and the House back into session to pass a real and serious response to the burgeoning Zika crisis,” more than 40 Democratic senators wrote to Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The simplest course of action would be to pass the Senate’s clean bipartisan compromise on Zika funding by unanimous consent and have the House pass the same bill immediately.”  

Concern over the mosquito-borne virus has intensified in recent weeks as the first reported cases of local transmission were identified by federal health officials in South Florida.  

[ Zika Funding Gone by the End of September, HHS Says ]  

The Senate Democrats blamed House Republicans for leaving for the long summer recess after they “killed a bipartisan compromise bill that received 89 votes in the Senate,” referring to a bipartisan amendment adopted in the Senate that would have provided $1.1 billion to fight the virus with no offsets.  

Ryan disputed the notion that the $1.1 billion House-adopted conference report was a partisan measure.  

“One important thing to know about this plan is that it is a compromise,” he wrote. “We agreed to the exact level of funding Senate Democrats have supported. Democrats sought to have none of the funding be offset, and we agreed to partially offset it.”  

Democrats, who weren’t involved in writing the Zika conference report, did not view the legislation as a compromise.  

“Republican leadership acquiesced to their extreme right-wing members, who demanded poison pill special-interest priorities that weakened clean water rules, supported the Confederate flag and limited access to family planning services by once again attacking Planned Parenthood,” the senators wrote.  

The measure excludes certain funding for contraceptive services in Puerto Rico, which Democrats argue is a crucial part of preventing the spread of Zika. In the letter, they cited numerous medical groups including the World Health Organization that have “all called for greater access to birth control in Zika-impacted countries.”  

[ Senate Rejects Zika Package Again, No Signs of a Deal ]  

“Family planning services and access to contraception are primary tools to help combat Zika,” they wrote. “By preventing these clinics from helping women at risk of contracting Zika, Republicans are limiting protection for Puerto Rican women in order to score cheap political points on women’s health.”  

Ryan suggested that Democrats blocked the GOP-written package solely because it included spending cuts, a frequent charge from Republicans.

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