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Senate to vote on Zika funding bill with restrictions on family planning funding

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Thursday filed cloture on legislation (HR 2577) that includes $1.1 billion in funding to address the Zika virus, setting up a procedural vote on the bill next week, The Hill's "Floor Action" reports (Carney, "Floor Action," The Hill, 6/23).

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 its own 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 for Ebola-related efforts and $543 million for 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.

Following the vote on the proposal, the House immediately adjourned for the July 4 recess. Public health experts have said it is critical that lawmakers address the funding before recess (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/23). The Senate will begin its recess next Thursday (Ferris, The Hill, 6/23).

Family planning restrictions met with concern

Liberal lawmakers in the Senate have voiced concerns about the latest proposal, indicating it is unlikely to garner approval in the chamber. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stated, "It's a mockery of how Congress should treat an emergency" ("Floor Action," The Hill, 6/23).

The Hill reports that a top concern among liberal lawmakers is the bill's restrictions on family planning funding. According to the proposal, the allocation of the primary source of health care funding is restricted to health departments, hospitals or providers that are "reimbursed through public health plans."

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the restriction on funding for Planned Parenthood "a poison pill."

Donna Crane, vice president of policy at NARAL Pro-Choice America, also criticized the family planning restriction, noting that it "significantly hampers America's ability to respond to the Zika virus by cutting off the very clinics in the neighborhoods that are going to need these services" (The Hill, 6/23).

President Obama threatens veto

In related news, President Obama has threatened to veto the bill should it pass, Reuters reports.

White House spokesperson Eric Schultz stated that the proposal "falls far short" of the funding level recommended by public health officials to address the virus. Schultz said, "We urge [conservative lawmakers] to stop turning this into a political football, and to actually get to work to come up with proposals that will serve the American people."

According to Reuters, the Obama administration also denounced the proposal for restricting access to contraception, particularly since Zika can be sexually transmitted (Rampton/Cornwell, Reuters, 6/23).

Separately, CDC said it "remains hopeful that Congress will quickly finalize and pass a comprehensive bill that meets critical needs without exposing Americans to other dangerous health threats" (The Hill, 6/23).