WASHINGTON, D.C. – While America recorded its first death from the Zika virus, Congress continues to delay funding for the fight against the spreading danger over issues such as abortion and confederate flags.
As far back as February, President Obama asked Congress to appropriate $1.9 billion to fight the disease. Since then, the U.S. Senate has grappled with a $1.1 billion deal passed by the House of Representatives, with little Democratic support. The White House has threatened to veto the bill.
The funding is supposed to fuel programs to eradicate mosquitoes, develop vaccines and protect pregnant women from the risk of having babies with severe birth defects, but according to major news outlets, Democrats are holding the funding hostage over issues ranging from the Confederate flag and pesticide regulations to birth control and Obamacare.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that the House-passed bill was the only real choice the Senate had as of last week.
Congress must now work out a compromise before both the House and Senate adjourn for next week’s national political conventions and the August recess. By the time lawmakers come back from their long summer break, it will be past Labor Day and the peak mosquito season will be over.
McConnell said the current agreement was a compromise with input from both parties.
But Democrats vowed to block the House-passed plan in the Senate in large part because it would cut $750 million from other supposed health programs such as abortions which they claim are anti-Zika efforts.
The current bill would cut $543 million in unused funds from the implementation of Obamacare, $107 million from leftover funds used to fight Ebola, and $100 million in administrative funds from the Health and Human Services Department.
Democrats were angered by a provision that would block supplemental funds from going to Planned Parenthood for birth control services for women at risk of becoming infected with the Zika virus.
And Democrats object to a provision that would exempt a redundant Environmental Protection Agency permit requirement to spray federally approved pesticides into bodies of water to combat the mosquito that carries the Zika virus.
Democrats also are upset that Republicans removed a provision that would have banned the Confederate flag from being flown at federal veterans’ cemeteries and buildings, although what that has to do with Zika, no one knows.
Meanwhile, state officials — especially in the hot, rainy Gulf States — are spending millions of dollars of state and local money to combat Zika rather than wait on federal money that may not come anytime soon.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, currently there are 819 cases of Zika in the United States associated with travel to infected countries.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced $26.2 million in state funds for Zika preparedness, prevention and response including: mosquito surveillance and abatement, training for mosquito control technicians, enhanced laboratory capacity, and purchase of Zika prevention kits.
Florida has had more than 200 cases of Zika, the most of any state in the nation.
Officials in Texas announced this week that they would beginning testing donated blood for the Zika virus.
While most people infected with the disease have only mild, flu-like symptoms, the virus can cause devastating birth defects such as microcephaly, in which a baby is born with a small head that is often tied to abnormal brain development.
“The nation is on the threshold of a public health emergency,” the National Governors Association warned, urging Congress and the administration to agree on funding as soon as possible.