Senate Democrats blocked a Republican bill that would have funded the fight against Zika virus, saying that the measure falls short of what is needed to combat the tropical disease and criticizing the Republicans' attempt to include a funding cut for Planned Parenthood in the spending proposal.
Congress has been slow to act on a funding bill for Zika, even with the warm summer months rapidly approaching when health officials warn that the threat posed by the mosquito-borne illness increases.
The Republican plan that failed on Tuesday would have provided $1.1 billion in funding to combat Zika. It had already passed the House of Representatives, but it did not get the 60 votes needed in the Senate to clear a procedural hurdle. The vote was 52 in favor and 48 against on a mostly party-line vote.
It is unclear if or when lawmakers would revisit the issue before Congress breaks for a seven-week recess after next week. Both sides warned the other that there could be a political price to pay in an election year for stalling on Zika funding.
"Here we are, in an utterly absurd position, playing political games as this public health crisis mounts here in our country," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The Zika virus, which has swept through the Americas and Caribbean since last fall, has been linked to thousands of cases of microcephaly, a rare birth defect, in Brazil, as well as to neurological disorders. It has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization.
There have not yet been any cases reported of local transmission of the Zika virus in the continental United States, but there have been 820 cases that were acquired from travel to areas with active Zika outbreaks, or through sexual transmission. There have been more than 1,800 cases of Zika infection reported in Puerto Rico.
Health experts have warned that local transmission will likely occur in the continental United States with warmer weather.
Democrats have been urging Republicans for months to agree to Zika funding. The Republican plan would have funded mosquito control efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as vaccine research by the National Institutes of Health, and money for community health centers in areas that are experiencing the highest rates of Zika transmission.
But Democrats complained that Republicans locked them out of drafting the $1.1 billion funding plan, which would have made $750 million in budget cuts elsewhere. The Republican plan, rushed through the House last week, would have taken money from battling the Ebola virus as well as from funds set aside for implementing the Obamacare health insurance program in US territories.
Democrats were especially angry that the Republicans' proposal barred funding from going to private entities such as Planned Parenthood, which many conservative Republicans oppose giving any federal dollars to because it performs abortions (although not with money from the government). Zika virus can be sexually transmitted, and the funding for Planned Parenthood is integral to fighting the virus in places like Puerto Rico, Democrats said.
Republican Senator John Thune said on Monday that Democrats were more interested in pleasing a what he called a special interest group, referring to Planned Parenthood, than in acting on Zika.
"I don't know what universe (McConnell) is living in. What does he think, we're all stupid, the American people are dumb? They're not. They understand what's going here," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said after the vote.
President Barack Obama had vowed to veto the plan, which falls short of his $1.9 billion initial request, if it ever arrived on his desk.
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