McClatchy DC Bureau / Miami Herald
Will this revised Zika bill overcome its partisan past?
BY JAMES ROSEN
Senate Republican leaders revealed what they called a breakthrough in Zika funding Thursday under renewed pressure from Florida lawmakers and mayors to break a seven-month political impasse.
Democrats, however, said disputes over funding other urgent needs could still block any final deal, with the Zika money now part of a larger appropriations measure meant to fund the federal government through Dec. 9.
Just a few hours after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine met with South Florida members of Congress and visited the White House to push for the stalled Zika money, the Senate Republicans disclosed the new Zika effort.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, hailed the breakthrough in a Senate speech, but he warned the $1.1 billion in Zika funds could still be stalled.
“It took too long, but here’s where we are now,” Rubio said. “Better late than never.”
Rubio, who is running for Senate re-election against Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, said he was “cautiously optimistic.”
But the failed presidential candidate warned that it could still come undone because of competing funding demands for urgent needs from lawmakers representing other states.
“There are all sorts of other issues that are still being debated on,” Rubio said. “Broader issues are at play that could derail Zika that have nothing to do with Zika.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee and has been involved in the Zika negotiations, expressed guarded optimism.
“It’s not over until it’s over, but it looks like we’re succeeding,” Diaz-Balart told McClatchy in the late afternoon.
One of those issues was millions of dollars for the City of Flint, Michigan, to replace pipes that have contaminated drinking water there and inflicted lead poisoning on hundreds of its residents.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said she and other Democrats would not support the overall appropriations bill until Flint got aid.
“As Americans, we should be willing to help each other, no matter the emergency,” Stabenow said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Bill Nelson, an Orlando Democrat, responded: “While I support the people of Flint, my priority is the people of Florida. This bill provides a clean $1.1 billion to help stop the spread of Zika virus with no political riders, and I will support it.”
It also was unclear whether conservative House Republicans would accept new compromise provisions that allow Planned Parenthood’s partner health clinics in Puerto Rico to get reimbursed for treating Zika patients. Puerto Rico has most of the Zika cases in the United States, with almost 19,500 infections.
The Miami Republican Diaz-Balart said the new deal removed the especially contentious provision on Planned Parenthood that had contributed to most Senate Democrats voting against the Zika bill three times this summer.
Diaz-Balart said the revised legislative language allowed all health care providers to seek reimbursement for Zika-related care from the federal government.
However, existing federal law will continue to ban providers from seeking money for abortions, and the revised Zika legislation reiterates that prohibition.
“Whether the House Republicans are actually able to get enough of their members coupled with ours to pass that (package) without the riders on Zika — I believe remains to be seen,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County, Florida, Democrat, told reporters.
The Planned Parenthood provisions had stalled a $1.9 billion emergency plan to fund Zika research and prevention that President Barack Obama had sent Congress in February.
There was a partial compromise over another contentious provision. House Republicans had insisted that the $1.1 billion in new Zika funds be offset through cutting other spending.
The Senate Republican package unveiled Thursday offsets almost $800 million, including $397 million to set up health insurance exchanges in Puerto Rico.
There were 867 cases of Zika in Florida as of Wednesday, more than any other state except New York. Florida and New York each have about 1 million Puerto Rican residents.
Most of the Florida infections were in South Florida. Eighty-nine involved pregnant women.
“South Florida is Ground Zero for Zika, and we need Congress to step in to help us keep our millions of residents and visitors safe,” Gimenez said after the Capitol Hill meeting. “I appreciate the full support of our state delegation as we continue to urge Congress to provide the funding our community urgently needs.”
The mayors arrived in Washington a week after Florida Gov. Rick Scott came to the nation’s capital to advocate for the $1.1 billion in emergency Zika funds.
“I strongly believe that we need to provide every penny needed to fight this disease, and not one dollar less,” said Diaz-Balart. “This virus poses a threat to every Floridian.”
However, the $1.1 billion now earmarked to combat Zika is less than the $1.9 billion that Obama sought in February when he sent the emergency legislative package to Congress.
The delay has forced the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to borrow money appropriated to treat and research Ebola and other diseases. A federal clinical trial for a Zika vaccine is on hold until new money arrives.
“If this money doesn’t start flowing, if we don’t get something done here, research on the vaccine is going to stop or come to a grind,” Rubio said on the Senate floor. “If you want to save money on Zika, develop a vaccine.”
Microcephaly, which causes infants to be born with abnormally small brains and heads, is the worst of several birth defects Zika can cause.
The disease is carried primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but it can also be transmitted via sexual intercourse with an infected partner.
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