- The Washington Times - Monday, July 4, 2016

As Americans turned out by the millions for barbecues and fireworks for Monday’s July 4 festivities, Republicans were hoping that every mosquito bite will make the patriotic revelers think of the Zika virus — and of Democrats.

Senate Democrats filibustered last week to block $1.1 billion in anti-Zika funding, and both sides now are trying to win the public relations battle back home over whether that was the right move.

The GOP says the quickest way to start vaccine trials and begin massive eradication efforts to eliminate Zika-carrying mosquitoes is to pass their bill, which already has cleared the House and could immediately land on President Obama’s desk.

But Mr. Obama has promised a veto, and Democrats in the Senate are fighting alongside him, saying they want more money and fewer strings. In particular, they say some of the Zika-fighting money should go to Planned Parenthood, so it can provide birth control services to women who fear the effects of Zika on pregnancy, particularly in hard-hit Puerto Rico.

“If there were ever a need for Planned Parenthood, it is now,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Thursday in a press conference aimed at GOP leaders.

Political analysts say Capitol Hill is so polarized right now that American voters may need to feel the full brunt of Zika and its devastating birth defects before they exert the type of political pressure needed to break the logjam.

To date, local transmission has been limited to U.S. territories offshore. The mainland has seen 935 travel-related cases scattered across the country, and it is unclear if and when the disease will spread on its own.

“We’re talking about something that might materialize. We know it’s here and there have been victims, but the magnitude in the future is something we can’t measure out,” said G. Terry Madonna, a politics professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Public perception of the threat is a mixed bag, with 3-in-4 people saying Zika poses a major threat to pregnant women, yet only 13 percent feel it is a major threat to them personally, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation said in its June tracking poll.

About 3-in-4 people, including the majority of Republicans, say Congress should invest more money in research on Zika and efforts to prevent the disease’s spread.

Nearly two thirds say the U.S. should help women in Zika-affected areas by expanding access to abortion, contraception and family planning services, though just under half of Republicans — 46 percent — support that idea.

Those services are at the heart of the Senate standoff, with Democrats saying the GOP boxed out vital sources of care.

“They are playing doctor,” Rep. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat, said. “They are playing, literally, a role that they are not qualified to play.”

Senate Republicans say the Democrats’ objections are mystifying, since the GOP-drafted package earmarks $95 million in grant funding to bolster women’s health at public health departments, hospitals and Medicaid managed-care clinics in places with active transmission of the disease.

“Democrats are holding up this bill because it will not fund a handful of Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico,” Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, said in floor remarks.

Planned Parenthood and affiliated clinics are the only options in pockets of the territory, Democrats contend, so the GOP should have funded those groups too.

Senior Democrats want Republicans to reopen negotiations before Congress skips town for a seven-week recess, arguing they were locked out of the first round to appease House conservatives.

“It’s my guess there was a lot of winking going on to the hard right: ‘Don’t worry, we won’t spend any money; Democrats will never support it. We’ll make sure they never support it by putting in poison pills that they oppose,’” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

Republican leaders say they’ve made their final offer, so Democrats better come around before Zika hits hard.

“We know that this risk is on our doorstep,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “And it is really shameful that our Democratic colleagues put politics ahead of sound public policy.”

Though the virus isn’t spreading on its own in the states, some women who contracted the virus abroad have given birth to infants with Zika-related defects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded seven such instances in live births and five cases of defects in fetuses who were miscarried, stillborn or terminated through abortion.

Agency scientists have pleaded for dollars from Congress so that they can track pregnant women and measure outcomes related to Zika, though neither side appears to be budging.

Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly was the only Democrat last week to vote in support of proceeding with Congress’ vehicle for the Zika funding — a bill that funds military construction and veterans programs.

“Like many measures that come before the Senate, I did not support every provision included in the conference report, and I am disappointed that we are not responding to this public health emergency like we traditionally have responded to others like it — in a bipartisan way,” Mr. Donnelly said. “My vote, however, reflected my commitment to provide funding for our veterans and to combat the Zika virus. I hope Republicans and Democrats will work together to reach a bipartisan agreement that can be enacted quickly.”

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

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