Blame game begins on Zika funding

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Senate Democrats on Tuesday blocked a funding bill to fight the Zika virus, infuriating Republicans and raising real doubts about whether Congress will approve an emergency response before the summer recess.

Both parties agree that the virus is a real and growing health crisis; each blames the other for the failure to act.

{mosads}Republicans slammed Democrats for voting down the $1.1 billion bill, arguing the party is standing in the way of funding it has claimed for months to desperately want.

Democrats countered that the bill was not a serious effort at bipartisan compromise and was loaded with unacceptable riders, including limiting funding to Planned Parenthood and loosening Clean Water Act rules for pesticides. They also objected that the measure was paid for with cuts to Ebola response funding and ObamaCare. 

They called for a new round of negotiations to produce a bipartisan bill, but Republicans rejected that demand, saying they would instead hold another vote on the same measure after the Fourth of July recess to give Democrats another chance. 

At a press conference Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) repeatedly said no changes would be made to the bill to address Democratic concerns. He said that as a conference report, or the product of negotiations between the House and Senate, no amendments could be made.  

Asked if he is willing to reconsider the Planned Parenthood provision given that it is the focus of the Democratic objections, McConnell said: “Well, it’s an interesting discussion, but it’s irrelevant. This is a conference report. It’s not amendable. It’s not amendable.” 

He rejected Democratic calls to go back to the drawing board and produce a new bill with Democratic input. “The negotiations have already occurred,” he said. 

McConnell called Democrats’ actions “inexplicable and unacceptable.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, dismissed suggestions that Democrats might get the blame for the lack of Zika funding, saying that Republicans knew their bill was doomed to fail but had no choice but to appease hard-line conservatives in the House.  

“It’s all going to be on the Republican shoulder,” he said. “It’s obvious what they’re doing.”

The Senate previously reached a bipartisan Zika deal to provide $1.1 billion in funding that would not be paid for, but House Republicans insisted the cost of the measure be fully offset.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the top Senate Republican on health spending, acknowledged the problems bridging the gap with the House. 

“The big obstacle here is, clearly, is that the House appropriately wanted to do everything possible to pay for this, and Democrats in the Senate don’t,” Blunt said. 

“They’d like it not paid for at all,” he added. “The House would like it all paid for, so to get a bill that the House would pass and the Senate would pass, some of it needs to be paid for. Democrats don’t want to do that, and that becomes a needless obstacle to getting this money available.”

Blunt, who has taken the lead in negotiating with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) on Zika funding in the past, took a softer line than McConnell. “We have to get a solution,” he said.

Blunt spoke with Murray about Zika on the Senate floor Tuesday, an aide said, though it is unclear what, if anything, came of that conversation. In fact, Blunt pointed to McConnell’s stance that negotiations would not be reopened.  

“We have to get to a solution on this, and it has to be a solution that both the House and the Senate can pass, and you heard the leader explain what his view of the next step was,” Blunt said. 

Democrats say House Republicans and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will have to answer to voters if the Zika outbreak worsens.

“People need to look no further than Speaker Ryan’s office if Zika develops into the problem that we’re all concerned that it might be,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). 

Ryan, meanwhile, called it “ridiculous” that Senate Democrats would block the Zika funding bill after stressing the urgency of the crisis.  

Health experts warn that transmission of Zika within the continental United States will begin this summer and that the unpredictable virus carries serious dangers for pregnant women, given that it can cause major birth defects and developmental problems in children.  

The virus is generally mild and carries lower risks for people who are not pregnant. Its spread is expected to be contained to small clusters in the southern United States, though experts emphasize they cannot be certain and that Puerto Rico will be hit particularly hard. 

Athletes are already dropping out of the Olympics in Brazil for fear of contracting Zika. There are already 2,680 cases of Zika in the American states and territories and 481 cases in pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

A range of health groups, including the March of Dimes and the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote to congressional leaders on Tuesday urging them to reopen negotiations to find a bipartisan deal. 

“If this does not take place, Congress will bear the full responsibility for Zika-related birth defects across the nation in the coming years,” the letter states.  

Sarah Ferris and Jordain Carney contributed.

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