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The Truth Behind the Zika Funding Delays

Fears are rising as the Zika virus has become a national concern.  Nearly three months ago, my colleagues and I in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to help combat the virus, which is borne by mosquitos and can cause serious birth defects and other conditions if contracted during pregnancy. Yet Americans are still waiting for relief. Why? Because Senate Democrats refused to pass this bill before going home for the August District Work Period.

Passing our bill should have been simple. Republicans and Democrats agree on the problem. To date, hundreds of pregnant women in the United States and territories have shown signs of the Zika virus. Countless others live in fear of being infected.

Republicans and Democrats also agree on the solution: targeted federal funding can bolster efforts to prevent the virus, including mosquito control and the development and commercialization of vaccines.  

The solution was swift and simple: the House of Representatives passed a balanced, bipartisan, bicameral bill that would have provided $1.1 billion for Zika prevention efforts. 

Then the dysfunction and politics began. Senate Democrats blocked the bill twice because it did not send taxpayer money to one of their biggest political supporters, Planned Parenthood. They turned a genuine public health threat to unborn babies into an opportunity to defend Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the United States.

At the core of this dysfunction are seven clinics in Puerto Rico that are affiliated with Planned Parenthood. Under the House-passed legislation, these clinics are ineligible to receive funds to help fight Zika. The bill stipulates a more logical and effective approach — sending Zika virus defense funding to hospitals, community health centers, state health departments, and Medicaid. So Planned Parenthood advocates threw their political muscle behind these clinics and urged the Senate to oppose the Zika legislation.  And Senate Democrats and the president have responded by going on a PR blitz to blame Republicans for inaction.  Yet, who is really being obstructionist here?

The push to include these Planned Parenthood-affiliated clinics as funding recipients in the bill was a crass political calculation that unnecessarily injected politics into an important public health concern.  As fact-checkers at the media-run Politifact noted, everywhere there is a clinic in Puerto Rico, there is “another type of facility that would have been eligible for additional funding to combat the spread of Zika.”

Senate Democrats had a choice: they could pass much-needed legislation or they could engage in political theater in defense of one of their loudest and most politically powerful allies. They chose political theater, and, sadly, used the phrase “women’s health” as a weapon to deny women and their unborn children true protection. They chose to fight for Planned Parenthood instead of those afflicted with the Zika virus. More than six weeks have passed since that vote, and every day the Senate fails to act places more women and children at risk.

The Senate is prepared to take up this legislation again next Tuesday. I appeal to my colleagues to lay aside political calculations. The problem is clear, and the solution is ready. Do the right thing and pass this bill to fight this public health crisis.