Congress appeared close Monday to breaking its seven-month impasse over providing emergency funding to fight Zika through toughened mosquito control, prevention steps and development of a vaccine.
Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, Florida’s two U.S. senators, were pushing their peers to finalize a deal that would include $1.1 billion in Zika funds in a broader bill to fund the federal government into December. Florida had 771 Zika cases as of Monday, including 64 cases contracted from local mosquitoes, the only state in the country with local transmissions, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Nelson, a Democrat, rushed to the Senate floor to announce the good news.
“I am here to share with the Senate that I think we have finally found a path forward to fund the fight against Zika,” Nelson said in a speech.
Nelson said that extraneous provisions on health insurance, Planned Parenthood and abortion, which had stalled the legislation after House Republicans added them, would not be in the omnibus measure.
“As I’ve told members in both the House and the Senate, Zika is not a game,” Rubio said in late afternoon. “We need to pass this funding as soon as possible so our health officials and experts have the resources they need to conduct vital medical research and eradicate Zika in Florida.”
There were signs of progress on other fronts.
At a White House meeting earlier Monday, President Barack Obama met with congressional leaders and urged them to approve Zika funding along with money for disaster relief in Louisiana and Michigan.
“Even though I know we’re in the midst of a political season and everybody is thinking about elections, there’s still business to be done, and I was encouraged by some of the constructive work that’s being done right now,” Obama told top Republicans and Democrats.
Saying that keeping the government open beyond the Sept. 30 end of the current fiscal year is his top concern, Obama said his next priority is “to adequately fund our efforts to not only deal with the Zika outbreaks, but also come up with diagnostic tools and vaccines that will solve the problem for good.”
After the meeting, House Speaker Paul Ryan said it had gone well.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican, signaled a breakthrough at the start of the week’s session by filing a stopgap measure to fund the government through Dec. 9.
Citing “a lot of important progress already,” McConnell specified that the omnibus bill, called a Continuing Resolution, would “include funding for Zika control and for our veterans,” two issues that had blocked previous appropriations measures.
Significantly, while the measure would fund discretionary government operations for less than one-quarter of the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, Senate aides said it contains the full $1.1 billion in Zika funds that the Senate had approved in May. That amount was less than the $1.9 billion Obama had requested in February, but more than the $622 million provided in a House measure.
The apparent breakthrough came three days after Thomas Frieden, head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said his agency was “essentially out of money” to combat Zika.
Americans, Frieden warned, “are about to see a bunch of kids born with microcephaly in the coming months.
Microcephaly, which causes abnormally small heads and brains in newborns, is the worst of several birth defects that can result from a pregnant woman becoming infected with Zika. This summer, 17 babies in the continental United States have been born with microcephaly, including an infant born to a woman who traveled from Haiti to Florida in June to deliver her child.
As of Sept. 1, there were 671 pregnant women in the United States who had tested positive for the Zika virus, according to the CDC. Another 1,080 pregnant women have tested positive in U.S. territories, primarily Puerto Rico.
The virusis carried mainly by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito but can also be transmitted via sexual intercourse with an infected person.
The National Institutes of Health has started human trials on a vaccine against Zika, but the agency says it has had to borrow money earmarked for other programs to fund it.