Politics

The Real Reason Lawmakers Are Blocking Zika Funding

Congress got back to work this week after nearly two-month-long recess, but efforts to allocate funds to combat the Zika virus have stalled yet again. It begs the question: What's really behind this inaction?

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This week, senate Democrats rejected an emergency spending bill put forward by Republicans because it excluded Planned Parenthood from receiving funds for contraceptives, which experts consider an important tool to prevent birth defects associated with the virus. But by and large, Republican lawmakers have blocked similar bills in the months since the Obama administration requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding.

On the Democratic side, the stalemate represents the party's stand against a bill that exempts Planned Parenthood. (Senate Democrats blocked an almost identical version of the bill in June, The New York Times reports.) Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) blamed Republicans for sabotaging a compromise spending bill by intentionally omitting the reproductive health organization.

On the Republican side, it's less simple. Republican lawmakers have voiced concern about the amount of money requested by the White House, with some arguing that the emergency funds would give the administration a "blank check" that could be used for non-Zika-related purposes. However, The Washington Post argues Republican opposition largely comes down to politics.

"For one, taking up any spending bill — let alone an emergency bill outside of the regular process — has been a divisive exercise for GOP leaders ever since they won back the House majority in 2010. Conservatives are already balking at any funding that isn’t offset with cuts elsewhere, and given the fact that it is an election year and many GOP incumbents are still facing primary challenges, a significant chunk of the Republican conference might oppose a spending bill of any kind."

On both sides of the aisle, the failure to pass an emergency spending bill is tied to fears about how funds are going to be spent (or not spent). But for Republicans the stakes are arguably higher because they are closely tied to re-election interests.

But the clock is ticking on Zika.

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, said last month that his agency had used nearly all of the $222 million it was given in re-appropriated funds earlier this year. The Florida Department of Health has reported more than 56 cases of homegrown Zika infections. And the CDC counts 2,291 travel associated cases in the U.S.

"We need a bipartisan agreement," Sylvia Burwell, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a briefing last week. "This is an emergency. We did not know. It was not planned for. It is a national issue. For other kinds of emergencies we do it."

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