It turns out that Zika isn’t the only urgent problem that needs federal funds fast.
Florida lawmakers pushing to get $1.1 billion for Zika prevention and research into a rapidly evolving broader appropriations bill, called a continuing resolution, are competing with members of Congress from across the country who want their needs addressed.
“There are a lot of folks who want to put in different provisions because they see the CR and Zika as must-pass bills,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.
Current funding to operate much of the government runs only through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Congressional leaders are negotiating a measure to extend funding beyond that point, but they disagree on how far into the future to cover.
Diaz-Balart said he supported new appropriations through Dec. 9 and thought that trying to reach agreement on numerous controversial issues over a longer period would complicate the effort to get Zika funds.
“In the House, we’re still having this internal debate about some folks wanting to do a long-term continuing resolution, which I am dead-set against,” Diaz-Balart said.
On his second day in Washington to push for Zika funding, Florida Gov. Rick Scott met with members of Congress from the state, who briefed him on the rapidly evolving negotiations over federal spending.
“It’s important that we get this funding,” Scott told reporters after the session. “It’s important that we have a vaccine. It’s important that we have research. It’s important that everybody understands. There are lots of political differences, but this is about pregnant women and the developing baby. That’s all this is about.”
Among other birth defects, the Zika virus can produce microcephaly, which causes abnormally small brains and heads.
Seventeen babies in the continental United States have been born with Zika-linked microcephaly this summer, including one born to a woman who’d traveled from Haiti to Florida in June to deliver her child.
Diaz-Balart said he was jousting with other panel members seeking vital funding for their districts and states.
Lawmakers from Louisiana want billions for flood relief. Congressmen from Michigan want millions to clean contaminated drinking water. Others are pushing for more money for veterans’ health care.
“There are big issues,” Diaz-Balart said. “We’ve had storms. We’ve had flooding. There are folks in different states who are saying, `Wait a second, if we’re going to do a CR, if we’re going to do emergency funding, additional funding, for Zika, why not us?' Now that’s all under negotiation.”
The National Institutes of Health recently began human trials for a Zika vaccine, but its director said last week that the program and other key research initiatives for preventing the spread of the virus were running out of money.
“The cupboard is bare,” Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, a House Democratic leader, said Wednesday.
Scott said Florida couldn’t wait any longer to receive federal aid to help with treating the almost 800 people in the state infected with the virus and with preventing it from spreading further.
“I’m up here because I want Congress to act soon,” Scott said. “I want them to act today.”
Scott criticized Florida Sen. Bill Nelson for joining other Democrats in voting down earlier Zika bills because they contained unrelated provisions on abortion, Planned Parenthood and the federal health insurance law.
Scott’s criticism drew a rebuke from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fellow Republican from Miami.
“I am not of the opinion that Sen. Nelson has been unhelpful,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I think we need all the friends that we can have. Let’s build friendships and build bridges rather than call each other out. We want Sen. Nelson’s help, we want Sen. (Marco) Rubio’s help, we need them all. And they’ve all been helpful.”
Ros-Lehtinen said she and Scott “had a frank discussion” about allegations, first reported by the Miami Herald, that state health officials had undercounted the number of Zika cases or not provided enough information about where the cases were located.
As a result of changes in reporting guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida on Wednesday began including in its Zika counts infections acquired in the state by people who live outside it.
“We have included in our daily count now a category for people who’ve been exposed to Zika (in Florida) but live in another state,” said state Surgeon General Celeste Philip, who accompanied Scott to Washington.
Zika is carried primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but the virus can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse with an infected partner.
In the negotiations over the omnibus spending bill, Diaz-Balart said there were still differences between supporters and opponents of Planned Parenthood over how much of the new Zika funds should go to its clinics in Puerto Rico, which has been ravaged by more than 15,000 Zika cases, 86 percent of all infections in the United States.
“There are folks who have a greater interest, Republicans and Democrats, in scoring political points than in passing the Zika legislation,” Diaz-Balart said. “So the issue of funding or not funding Planned Parenthood – we don’t think that this is a place to have that battle.”
Becerra accused some Republicans, many of whom oppose Planned Parenthood because the women’s health network performs abortions, of trying to limit the agency’s access to the new Zika funds.
“They want to focus on their obsession to cut funding for women’s health in Planned Parenthood,” he said.
Scott repeated frustrations with the CDC, claiming it has been slow to send Zika-prevention kits and provide lab support.
“The federal government has got to figure out how to be a partner,” he said. “Don’t be a partner in a year. Be a partner now, when we’re going through this crisis.”
Beyond the competition among funding needs, there was disagreement on Capitol Hill over how much time the omnibus spending bill should cover.
Appropriators sought a short-term measure that would keep the government operating into December. Some conservatives wanted it to be funded until March. President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress were pushing for a bill to cover the entire next fiscal year, starting Oct. 1 and lasting through Sept. 30, 2017.