IN THE very early morning hours Thursday, Republicans who control the House pushed through a bill to combat the Zika virus that is a totem to their favored causes and a poke in the eye of Democrats. More than four months after President Obama requested nearly $1.9 billion in emergency funding to deal with a public-health emergency, the House voted for $1.1 billion but saddled it with unnecessary partisan baubles. This may further delay action against the mosquito-borne virus that can cause severe fetal birth defects.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) declared that the bill, approved along party lines 239 to 171, was the product of “careful and thorough deliberations.” But in fact, the Republicans compromised only with themselves and took to the House floor a bill that lacked bipartisan support.
The legislation would limit payments for birth-control services, an indirect way of defunding Planned Parenthood, long a GOP talisman. At this moment, it seems terribly punitive, coming as the nation faces a virus that puts pregnant women at risk and is spread through sexual contact as well as by mosquitoes. Republicans must have known this controversial provision would provoke howls of protest from Democrats. As Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) noted, House Republicans were playing to a very narrow segment — the tea party wing of the GOP — with “a hyperpartisan proposal that doubles down on using women’s health as a political football.” The cost of this will probably be more wrangling. Are these the same Republicans who took control of Congress promising to break the partisan gridlock?
There is no known cure or effective therapy for the Zika virus, which has already hit Latin America and the Caribbean hard in places, including Puerto Rico. If it begins to spread on these shores — so far it has not, but the probability is high that transmission will begin — then pregnant women across the South and Southwest will be at risk of giving birth to children with abnormally small heads and brain damage, a condition known as microcephaly, while other people may face Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can lead to paralysis.
The House, which had earlier approved $622 million for the Zika response, has now agreed to the $1.1 billion approved earlier by the Senate. That is promising because it would provide money for fighting mosquitoes, for carrying out vaccine research, for finding new diagnostics and for public education. But the downside is that the House bill funds the Zika battle by cutting $750 million from other programs, including Obamacare and the Ebola virus response effort. There is probably insufficient support in the Republican-controlled Senate to pass the House version, which means back to the drawing board, more delay and more of a chance that Zika will lead to birth defects in the United States.
To both parties in Congress, we say: The tiny Zika organism doesn’t care one whit about your acrimony, your blame-throwing, your delays. All Zika knows is how to infect and cause human suffering when it can. Who is going to win this battle: the virus, or us?