- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2016

Evidence that mosquitoes have begun to spread the Zika virus on the U.S. mainland is setting off alarm bells among Florida’s leaders and reviving partisan bickering over who is to blame for a lack of congressional action to confront the disease.

Concerns over a possible Zika outbreak in Miami are adding to the political uncertainty in a key swing state where the tourism industry is the No. 1 economic driver and already is reeling from a toxic green algae bloom ravaging its coastline.

“Floridians are in large part upset because the nation doesn’t seem to realize what a major issue this is — and health hazard,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

“It is getting a lot of attention back home and finally hitting the national stage,” Mrs. MacManus said. “It has been a burning issue for a month and a half in Florida.”

Scientists say Zika is responsible for birth defects in babies born to infected mothers, and it also has been tied to a syndrome that can lead to paralysis.

President Obama in February requested nearly $2 billion to combat and research the virus, though Republican leaders said it would be irresponsible to tack the whole cost onto the deficit. They urged the administration to tap money from the lingering Ebola fight in West Africa instead.

After months of back-and-forth, Republican negotiators ultimately settled on a $1.1 billion Zika package that was partially offset with $750 million from Obamacare, the Ebola fight in West Africa and other accounts.

Senate Democrats filibustered the package before leaving Capitol Hill for a seven-week recess, saying the deal shortchanged the effort and had too many strings attached.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Democrats had no choice but to block the plan when Republicans prevented Planned Parenthood from being part of birth control efforts and rolled back clean-water rules in a rush to kill Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

Speaking at the Republican National Convention last month in Cleveland, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell countered that “Clinton Democrats” were to blame.

Congress isn’t expected to revisit the issue until reconvening in September.

In the meantime, Republicans say, the Obama administration should use the $589 million that Congress shifted from the Ebola fight and other accounts to deal with pressing needs, though federal agencies say their long-term planning is starting to suffer.

“I have moved a fair amount of money from other accounts to do what I think is a very proactive, full-court press on the [Zika] research; therefore, nothing has substantially slowed yet,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of infectious diseases at the NIH, said Friday. “I am preciously close to the point where I don’t have any money, and I’m going to start slowing.”

Some Florida lawmakers are caught between a desire for quick cash to address the problem while toeing the party line on fiscal restraint.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is running for re-election, broke with the party and supported Mr. Obama’s $1.9 billion request for emergency spending early on, though he also backed the $1.1 billion Republican compromise last month instead of joining the Democratic filibuster.

“I have supported every single Congressional effort to deal with Zika,” said Mr. Rubio.

Carlos Beruff, Mr. Rubio’s primary opponent, said the incumbent was too focused on his presidential campaign to address the issue.

“His election-year epiphany won’t distract from his absentee record and his failure to get the necessary funding to combat Zika,” said Beruff spokesman Chris Hartline.

The issue also is spilling into the presidential race, and raising questions about how Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump plan to address the problem.

Mrs. Clinton has blamed congressional Republicans for refusing to meet Mr. Obama’s funding requests and in April announced that she was sending two advisers to Puerto Rico to learn more about the virus, saying Zika is ” an urgent problem and we need to act now.”

Mr. Trump has been mum on the subject, leaving him vulnerable to attacks from Democrats who joke that his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border will not stem the march of Zika from Latin America.

“It’s not like the mosquitoes are coming; the mosquitoes are already here,” Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, said at the height of the debate.

Mrs. MacManus said Mrs. Clinton’s response likely “helps her with the environmental community and health communities that are very much aligned with Democrats anyway.”

The business community, meanwhile, wants to hear from Mr. Trump given the one-two punch of algae and Zika.

“Of course people would expect him to weigh in on it because of his Florida connection, and he runs a tourism resort,” the political science professor said.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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