Will Congress act on Zika?

Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). Photo courtesy of Louis Frankel.
Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.).
Photo courtesy of Louis Frankel.

With the presidential campaign at a post-convention lull and Congress on recess, the country has reached the eye of 2016’s political storm. But with 16 locally contracted cases of the Zika virus reported in the Miami, Fla., neighborhood of Wynwood as of Aug. 8, some wonder if  lawmakers will act in time to prevent a possible epidemic.

“It’s annoying, but I don’t feel like we should be in a panic,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.). “But it’s something we should deal with so we don’t get to the point where it’s a panic situation. It’s better to take care of this now before it becomes out of control.”

Frankel, who visited her South Florida district last week, attended a briefing from 18 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts. She said they were confident that the disease, which has been linked to birth defects in fetuses, will spread if nothing is done to control it.

Congressional Republicans rejected a $1.9 billion request that President Barack Obama made in February to fund Zika research and the development of a vaccine — something experts say will likely not be available until 2018. Republicans then debated a $1.1 billion Zika package. Ultimately, Senate Democrats rejected a bill in June after Republicans added language that would have cut funding for Planned Parenthood.


“It is always very difficult to get any funding bill, other than the military, through a Republican-led Congress,” Frankel said. “This shouldn’t be a partisan fight. The question is this: why can’t they take up a bill that we can agree to in a bipartisan way without restricting women’s access to health care?”

Frankel said if Congress were to reconvene tomorrow for an emergency session to pass a Zika funding bill, she would vote yes. Such legislation has been proposed by a number of politicians from both sides of the aisle, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, both Democrats.

The two senators recently wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, pointing out that congressional action on earlier health emergencies was relatively quick.

“The combined time it took Congress to fund all of the last three public health emergencies —Ebola, H1N1 and avian flu — was 137 days,” Cardin and Mikulski wrote. “It is deeply troubling that the Zika epidemic which disproportionately impacts pregnant women and their babies would be treated any differently than these other emergencies. In each of these instances, Congress was able to set aside political rhetoric and act quickly to help. Unfortunately, we have seen no such action on Zika for pregnant women and families.”

The Republicans’ so-called poison pill amendment to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood angered Democrats as well as liberal nonprofit organizations like Jewish Women International, which say the issues of women’s health and funding to combat Zika are linked.

“This is really crucial funding, and for the leadership to allow something defunding Planned Parenthood to be attached, we thought was really inappropriate,” said Ilana Flemming, JWI’s manager of advocacy initiatives. “To target a health-care service in order to pass funding for health care doesn’t make sense.”

Flemming said Zika funding has fallen victim to the gridlock that has paralyzed Washington.

“We’re in a difficult political climate right now, and it’s hard for Congress to pass major funding bills, and so I think that’s sort of spreading over into the Zika virus,” she said. “It’s a tough line to walk, but funding for Zika is not a partisan issue, and we just hope the leadership has the power to make this happen.”

JWI’s CEO Lori Weinstein condemned Congress’s inability to pass a Zika funding bill.

“After the recess, Congress must take swift, decisive action to safeguard the health of women, men, and children; any attempt to hijack another funding bill for a political agenda will be not only useless, but downright dangerous,” she said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said that while it may not be accurate to call Zika a “crisis” in the United States, there is potential for locally contracted cases to spread throughout Florida and other Gulf Coast states.

“It is mandatory that you respond to that with very aggressive mosquito control,” he said.

Contracting Zika from mosquitos in the United States poses a greater risk to the public than people entering the country from Brazil and other Zika-infected regions of the world, he said, adding that funding is “essential” for future treatment and prevention.

“I’m not going to explain why” that funding has not been approved, he said. “Congress is going to have to explain that.”

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