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Senate rejects funding bill for Zika response efforts

Liberal lawmakers in the Senate on Tuesday blocked a House-approved bill (HR 2577) that would provide $1.1 billion in funding to address the Zika virus in the United States, noting that the bill would undermine response efforts by excluding women's health providers from funding, the Wall Street Journal reports (Hughes/Armour, Wall Street Journal, 6/28).

Background on Zika

The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease that has spread across North and South America over the past year. Researchers recently learned that Zika can also be transmitted through sexual activity. The virus is not easily diagnosed, and it does not have a cure or vaccine. It is linked to the birth defect microcephaly, a condition in which an infant is born with an abnormally small head and brain. The condition is fatal for some infants, while others experience permanent disabilities.

Officials in Brazil and Honduras have issued guidance recommending that women avoid pregnancy. El Salvador's recommendation is that women not get pregnant until 2018. However, many countries in Latin America restrict access to contraception and often ban abortion. In addition, women have been advised to protect themselves against mosquitos, but insect repellant can be unaffordable for low-income women.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak and its link to microcephaly a public health emergency of international concern. Separately, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement directing nations affected by the Zika virus to remove bans on access to sexual and reproductive health care services.

U.S. response efforts

The White House has called for $1.9 billion to combat the virus. Amid congressional delays on the funding request, a senior administration official in April said the administration would transfer more than $500 million in funding allocated to combating the Ebola virus to Zika response efforts.

In May, CDC announced that it will allocate more than $85 million to U.S. states and territories to combat the Zika virus. Separately, CMS in June announced that states may use Medicaid funding to cover preventive measures, including contraception and family planning services, to combat the virus' spread.

The House and Senate each approved a funding proposal for a Zika response earlier this year. The Senate's measure (SA 3900) would provide $1.1 billion in funding, while the House's measure (HR 5243) would allocate $622 million. Both Zika response proposals include antiabortion-rights language. Earlier this month, the Senate voted to go to conference with the House to negotiate and merge the proposals.

On Thursday, the House voted 239-171 to advance a $1.1 billion proposal that differs from the Senate's original proposal. The proposal was included in an $82.5 billion appropriations measure (HR 2577) for military and veteran services for 2017.

The proposal would redirect $750 million from other federal programs, including $107 million from Ebola-related efforts and $543 million from a program to help U.S. territories set up insurance marketplaces under the Affordable Care Act (PL 111-148). Overall, the proposal allocates about $400 million in new spending for Zika response efforts, short of the $1.9 billion requested by the White House. In addition, the proposal would prohibit Planned Parenthood from receiving funds under a $95 million grant program (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/24).

Latest developments

The Senate on Tuesday held a procedural vote on HR 2577, voting 52-48 and falling short of the 60 votes needed for the measure to defeat liberal lawmakers' filibuster and hold a final vote on the bill (Herszenhorn, New York Times, 6/28).

Liberal lawmakers in the Senate said they voted against the measure because its prohibitions on funding providers such as Planned Parenthood would undermine efforts to protect reproductive-age women, who are especially vulnerable to the virus (Wall Street Journal, 6/28).

Liberal senators also expressed concern about a provision in the bill that would lift certain restrictions on pesticide use (AP/Los Angeles Times, 6/28). In addition, they voiced opposition to provisions in the bill shifting funding away from the ACA and efforts to combat Ebola.

Lawmakers denounce funding restrictions

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) lambasted the provisions restricting funds for family planning providers, noting, "It is one of the most cynical ploys I've seen on a life and death issue in the time that I've served in Congress" (Wall Street Journal, 6/28).

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said conservative lawmakers added provisions to the bill they knew would hurt its chances of passage. "[T]hey're just not facing the fact that this is an emergency," he said (New York Times, 6/28).

Separately, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the bill "outrageous" and "shameful" because of the contested provisions (Snell/DeBonis, "Power Post," Washington Post, 6/28).

McConnell says Senate will vote again after July 4; liberal lawmakers press for more negotiation

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the Senate would hold another vote on the bill after Congress returns from its July 4 break (Carney [1], "Floor Action," The Hill, 6/28).

Congress will have just two weeks in session to act on the legislation after it returns from the July 4th break and before it recesses for seven weeks starting July 18 (Kelly, USA Today, 6/28). It is uncertain whether Congress will be able to advance Zika response legislation during that time period, meaning that the funding to combat Zika could be delayed until well after mosquito season has started in the United States (Wall Street Journal, 6/28).

Liberal lawmakers on Tuesday also urged new negotiations on Zika-response legislation (New York Times, 6/28). According to The Hill's "Floor Action," a group of liberal senators in a letter sent to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) requested their "cooperation in quickly negotiating an agreement that rejects politicizing disaster response with extreme and unnecessary partisan priorities" (Carney [2], "Floor Action," The Hill, 6/28).

Comments

Following the Senate vote, White House press secretary Josh Earnest criticized conservative lawmakers for failing to advance President Obama's original request for $1.9 billion in Zika response funds, noting that public health officials "need that money right now" (Rascoe/Zargham, Reuters, 6/28).

Dana Singiser, vice president of public policy and government affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, criticized the defeated measure. "This bill does not value the lives of women and children," she said, noting that conservative lawmakers "have gone out of their way to refuse to put even one dollar towards family planning clinics in the midst of this Zika crisis." She added, "[The] bill shortchanges a looming public health crisis by hundreds of millions, and restricts the types of providers, including Planned Parenthood, from helping where they are needed most."

Citing "the kind irreparable harm a politically motivated stunt like this can do to women and children," Singiser called for "a real response that empowers women and stops the Zika virus from inflicting suffering on families in America and across the globe" (Planned Parenthood Federation of America release, 6/28).

Separately, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, "If we don't get new money, we won't be able to do things at a pace that is necessary and appropriate to the urgency of this threat" (New York Times, 6/28).