Senate Democrats launched a filibuster Tuesday to stop $1.1 billion to combat the Zika virus, saying it’s not enough money, has too many strings attached and undercuts environmental protections in a rush to eradicate virus-carrying mosquitoes.
Even as the White House demands quick action ahead of a predicted summer surge of mosquitoes, President Obama and fellow Democrats said a bad bill was worse than no bill at all, and demanded Republican leaders go back and rewrite the measure to allow Zika money to go to Planned Parenthood.
Furious Republicans, who control both chambers, said they’ve already compromised enough, and said they’ll try to wait it out, hoping voters give Democrats an earful back home during a short July 4 vacation this weekend.
“We need to act and we need to act right now,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, refusing to reopen negotiations.
Supporters fell seven votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster, with only one Democrat, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, voting with GOP leaders. Two Republican senators voted against the package, meanwhile.
The bill cleared the House last week and the Senate has few options other than to pass the compromise as-is, or else kill it, which could send both houses back to square one in their negotiations.
The deal written by GOP leaders provides some $1.1 billion to fund the search for a vaccine and also pay for mosquito eradication, while waiving environmental rules that could limit those efforts. About $750 million of the money is paid for by shifting funds, while the rest is tacked onto the deficit.
Mr. Obama has threatened to veto the compromise, saying it was less than the $1.9 billion he requested and it left out critical steps by failing to let Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers dole out contraceptives.
Congressional Democrats also balked at the move to waive environmental rules to aid mosquito eradication.
“This conference report is the most irresponsible legislation I have ever seen in my 34 years in Congress,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “That says a lot. I can’t think of anything that’s close.”
The standoff comes amid increasing worry over local outbreaks of Zika in the states and D.C.
Mosquitoes are spreading the disease in Puerto Rico and Latin America, where Brazilians first noticed an uptick in both Zika and microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development.
Meanwhile the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded more than 820 travel-related cases of Zika in the states and D.C., a handful of them through sexual transmission, though experts say the virus could puncture the mainland further once summer ramps up and Aedes mosquitoes flourish.
Republicans said Democrats’ objections about Planned Parenthood were a smokescreen. They said the crux of the debate was that Democrats wanted to spend more, and not replace it with cuts elsewhere.
Democrats defended their stance, saying deficit worries should take a back seat.
“An emergency is an emergency,” Mr. Reid said. “You can’t have offsets for an emergency.”
The administration has already shifted more than $500 million over from Ebola-fighting money, and Republicans said combined with the $1.1 billion they’ve agreed to, it funds all of the emergency parts of the president’s request.
Mr. Obama, though, wants to backfill the Ebola money, saying the crisis in West Africa could flare up again.
Republicans say the package is their final offer.
“The negotiations have already occurred,” Mr. McConnell said, later adding: “I would say to my Democratic friends there are some disadvantages to not being in the majority. You don’t get everything exactly the way you want.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, signaled he doesn’t want to deal with Zika again, after he muscled the bill to passage in pre-dawn votes last Thursday. He said he had no choice at the time, because Democrats disrupted the chamber with a sit-in over gun control.
In the meantime, agencies like the CDC and National Institutes of Health are waiting to see how much money they have to fight Zika.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases director at NIH, said his agency borrowed money from other tasks to kick-start vaccine trials and track pregnant women in Zika-affected countries in Latin America.
“Pretty soon we’re going to have to pay back that borrowed money, and then we’re going to need new money to continue what we started,” he said in a phone interview.
Dr. Fauci said his agency would fare best under Mr. Obama’s $1.9 billion plan, though he would accept a “clean” $1.1 billion package of new spending, so that it doesn’t take money away from Ebola.
He said Congress should make a long-term commitment now, since lawmakers don’t always fulfill their vows to free up money down the road.
“They don’t, they don’t,” Dr. Fauci said. “Practically, it doesn’t work that way.”