Political Insider

An AJC blog about Atlanta politics, Georgia politics, Georgia and metro Atlanta election campaigns. Because all politics is local.

Zero new dollars for anti-Zika effort as Congress skips town for summer

Members of Congress left Washington today without striking a deal on how to combat the spread of the Zika virus.

That means that federal agencies such as the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, will continue to slog through peak mosquito season without seeing a penny of new money until at least September.

The finger-pointing on Capitol Hill is nasty. The two parties have been at loggerheads for months, divided over everything from how much money is necessary to how an aid package should be paid for and whether to make any other changes to government policy while they're at it.

On Thursday, Senate Democrats for the second time filibustered a spending bill written mainly by Republicans that would provide $1.1 billion to the National Institutes of Health, State Department and CDC.

They're unhappy because the GOP cut hundreds of millions from an Obamacare program to help pay for the new Zika money. They also argue that Republicans included provisions that would weaken clean water protections and bar funding for Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico, which has been ravaged by the Zika in recent months.

“Republicans say there’s no more time to work on Zika? Give us all a break," Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, said on Wednesday. "There’s plenty of time - seven weeks to be exact. I guess two months of vacation are more important to Republicans than protecting pregnant women and their babies from the terrible birth defects caused by Zika.”

Democrats want to renegotiate the bill. Congress doesn't reconvene until September 6.

The GOP disputed Democrats' critiques of the bill and said they are obstructing for short-term political gain.

Democrats "think dysfunction works well for them politically, so they’re trying to manufacture some regardless of who gets hurt in the process," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on the Senate floor. "They’ve tried to muddy the issue with extraneous arguments and half-truths but they just don’t stand up to serious scrutiny."

Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue voted with most of their Republican colleagues in favor of the $1.1 billion measure Thursday.

"It will be professional malpractice on our part if we leave here for seven weeks and have not dealt with this," Isakson said yesterday.

Congress' inability to strike an agreement means that agencies such as the CDC will be forced to use the money they've already got to fund their Zika work. They can also divert limited amounts of money from other initiatives to underwrite their research, but that also means those other accounts will bleed out more quickly. The Obama administration moved $589 million in unspent Ebola money for Zika work earlier this spring.

CDC Director Tom Frieden told senators on Wednesday that anti-Zika research may need to be halted, delayed or killed or Congress doesn't approve the full $1.9 billion requested by the White House back in February.

"CDC urgently needs a surge of resources to prevent and control the spread of Zika virus in the U.S., Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and other U.S. territories," said Frieden.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.