Zika Funds Fail in Senate as Democrats Decry ‘Poison Pills’

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A lab technician displays Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia bacteria in a test tube for a photograph at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Feb. 19, 2016.

  • Cornyn says Democrats will be responsible for birth defects
  • Republicans balked at $1.9 billion cost of White House request

Senate Democrats on Tuesday blocked Republicans’ plan to partially fund President Barack Obama’s request for funding to tackle the Zika virus and attach it to other items Democrats dismissed as partisan, setting off a bitter round of sniping ahead of the July 4th recess.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas called Democrats "sore losers" and said they, not Republicans, will pay a political price for blocking the $1.1 billion Zika funding package, which was to be attached to a funding bill for veterans and military construction.

“Here we are in an utterly absurd position, playing political games as this public health crisis mounts here in our country,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said after the vote. “Pregnant women all across America are looking at this with dismay, utter dismay.’’

The measure was blocked on a 52-48 vote, short of the 60-vote threshold needed to advance it. Democratic leaders called for a new round of negotiations to produce a bipartisan bill.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats "have been trying for months" to pass President Barack Obama’s request for $1.9 billion to fund Zika control efforts. The Republican measure blocked Tuesday would take away funding from birth control, veterans and combating Ebola, he said.

"It is unbelievable that somebody would have the audacity to come to the floor and say it’s Democrats’ fault," said Reid of Nevada. "A significant amount of American women, especially young women, go to Planned Parenthood," he said. "The Republicans said you can’t do that."

First Case

Shortly before the vote, the Florida Department of Health announced the first Zika-linked case in the state of a baby born with microcephaly, to a Haitian woman who contracted the virus abroad.

McConnell said the measure was senators’ last chance to provide Zika funding "for weeks" because the chamber will be off next week for the July 4 holiday. But Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat, said the package was "a bill designed to fail."

Democrats say the package is filled with "poison pills," forcing them to vote against the Republican-written plan.

Among the items Democrats objected to were limits on family-planning services, which Democrats called a "back door" cut to Planned Parenthood; a suspension of Clean Water Act rules on use of some pesticides without EPA approval; funding for veterans that was $500 million below what the Senate passed; and the deletion of a provision sought by Democrats to stop flying the Confederate battle flag at veterans’ cemeteries.

Veto Threat

The White House has said Obama would veto the measure, H.R. 2577, if it reached his desk.

Reid also said it would set a bad precedent to require funding for emergencies to be offset by cutting federal spending elsewhere. Typically, emergency spending is paid for by borrowing.

Cornyn said Monday that Democrats "want to spend $1.9 billion in emergency spending with no offsets." He added, "Busting the budget caps is more important to them than the public health and women who might suffer from birth defects."

Cornyn didn’t sound open to renegotiating the bill.

"This is their shot. I think there is going to be a heavy price to pay when this virus hits our shore and women start having babies with terrible birth defects," Cornyn said. "I wouldn’t want to be in their position."

Obama requested $1.9 billion to fight the virus in February, but Republicans didn’t act for months and ultimately balked at the price tag. A $1.1 billion emergency plan passed the Senate as an amendment to a spending bill last month on a 68-30 vote, with most Republicans, including Cornyn, voting against it because it would add to the deficit.

Florida Focus

Democrats have been pounding Republicans for failing to act for months, particularly in the key battleground state of Florida. 

Senator Marco Rubio, who changed his mind and decided to seek re-election this year, has been the most visible Republican pushing for Congress to act. He now faces the unwelcome prospect of going home for another recess and explaining why his party was unable to enact any funding yet again.

"I’m frustrated that we haven’t dealt with this, quickly, effectively, weeks ago, before the middle of the summer, middle of mosquito season," Rubio told reporters Monday.

Rubio said he had hoped the measure would be the full $1.9 billion on its own, as the president requested.

"I wish it didn’t have all these strings attached, because it would have been easier to pass a long time ago, but not doing anything is no longer an option," he said.

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