Planned Parenthood showdown threatens Zika funding

Planned Parenthood showdown threatens Zika funding
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A showdown over Planned Parenthood has moved to the center of the battle over funding to battle the Zika virus.

Senate Democrats on Tuesday blocked a Zika funding bill put forward by Republicans, objecting to a range of measures, including most prominently limits on funding for Planned Parenthood. The bill allows Zika funding for community health centers and other providers but not Planned Parenthood.

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Democrats blasted that as a political move, saying that Planned Parenthood’s contraceptive services could help prevent the spread of the virus through sex, and help women avoid pregnancy and the potential serious birth defects that come with Zika. 

But the stance puts Democrats in the position of now opposing a Zika funding bill after months of telling Republicans funding was needed right away. 

Democratic leaders on Thursday pushed back hard on questions about delays to Zika funding, pointing in particular to the Planned Parenthood issue. 

Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidSenate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees Harry Reid knocks Ocasio-Cortez's tax proposal: Fast 'radical change' doesn't work Overnight Defense: Trump rejects Graham call to end shutdown | Coast Guard on track to miss Tuesday paychecks | Dems eye Trump, Russia probes | Trump talks with Erdogan after making threat to Turkey's economy MORE (Nev.), standing at a press conference alongside Planned Parenthood vice president Dawn Laguens, said women often have “no place else to go.”

“So on that issue alone, I think it's pretty strong,” Reid added, speaking of his justification for blocking the bill. 

Republicans, though, are accusing Democrats of opposing the Zika funding bill simply to protect a “special interest.”

“Special interests got to them, special interest groups snapped their fingers and the Democrats came running,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneLeaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Mnuchin meets with Senate GOP to shore up ranks on Russia sanctions vote MORE (S.D.), the Senate’s No. 3 Republican, told reporters. “And as a consequence, there is not going to be funding for Zika.”

It's only the latest twist in a long fight pitting Democrats and the White House against Republicans over funding for Zika.

Republicans see an advantage and are now stressing the importance of new Zika funding, despite spending months resisting White House calls for $1.9 billion in new funds.

In April, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said new emergency funding was not needed, and that the issue could be handled through the regular appropriations process. That would have prevented new funding until Oct. 1.

In May, the Senate reached a bipartisan deal for $1.1 billion in funding, which wasn't paid for and didn't have controversial provisions like the Planned Parenthood restrictions. 

But House Republicans insisted that funding be paid for, an obstacle for the bipartisan deal. 

In June, House Republicans ended up breaking off talks with Democrats and putting forward a $1.1 billion bill with a range of additional provisions, leading to Democratic opposition. 

In addition to the limits on Planned Parenthood funding, Democrats also object to measures loosening Clean Water Act rules on spraying pesticides and paying for the Zika funds with cuts to money slated for Ebola and ObamaCare funding.

Senate Democrats say Republicans knew their bill would never get bipartisan support to pass. They say the $1.1 billion bill was a sop to satisfy House conservatives and allow Republicans to claim they were acting to fight Zika.

Democrats in the upper chamber blocked the Zika funding bill earlier this week and are calling for Republicans to return to the negotiating table. But those demands have been rebuffed, leaving the future of any Zika funding in doubt.

Republicans are now turning up the heat on Democrats for opposing the GOP funding bill. They note that Planned Parenthood can still be reimbursed through Medicaid, and that the Zika bill provides funding for alternatives like community health centers. 

But Democrats say that is not enough, and that when a crisis like Zika strikes, all hands should be on deck. 

The funding is currently aimed at Puerto Rico, where there is active transmission of Zika. The virus, though, is expected to spread to the continental U.S. this summer. 

Democrats note that Puerto Rico was facing a fiscal crisis affecting healthcare even before Zika, and that Planned Parenthood clinics on the island specialize in treating young, poor women who might not get care elsewhere. 

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April found that access to contraception in Puerto Rico is “constrained by limited availability,” and that approximately two thirds of pregnancies there are unintended. 

Public health experts warn limiting funding for Planned Parenthood could have a negative effect.

They said it's unlikely community health centers and other providers can absorb new patients during the Zika crisis. 

“It's true there are other providers,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, senior associate at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “It’s what is their capacity to handle new patients... community health centers everywhere are quite busy.”

She added that Planned Parenthood clinics “are used to dealing with a certain kind of patient,” particularly young and poor women. 

Peter Shin, a public health professor at George Washington University, sounded a similar note. 

“When they’re taking money away from Planned Parenthood, they’re basically taking it away from young, high-risk women,” he said. 

For now, there's no resolution in sight with both parties digging in their heels.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees McConnell blocks bill to reopen most of government Overnight Health Care: Thousands more migrant children may have been separated | Senate rejects bill to permanently ban federal funds for abortion | Women's March to lobby for 'Medicare for All' MORE (R-Ky.) has vowed to bring up the $1.1. billion package for another vote after lawmakers return from the Fourth of July recess.

President Obama on Friday again weighed in on the fight, urging lawmakers not to leave town for their long summer recess in mid-July without approving Zika funding.

Obama criticized a "bunch of unrelated topics" being added to the bill.

"It's been politics as usual," he said, "rather than responding smartly to a very serious public health request."