MEMBERS OF Congress, in case you missed it: Florida health officials confirmed on July 1 the largest count of people with new infections of the Zika virus, 10 on that day. Then, on July 6, 11 new cases. In all, at least 263 people in Florida have been infected since January, of which 43 have been pregnant women. In the United States, there are now 1,133 people who have been infected, including 320 pregnant women. The mosquito-borne Zika virus, for which there is no effective vaccine or cure, is mild in most people but can cause a serious birth defect known as microcephaly, as well as other fetal neural damage.
Florida is a bellwether, close to Latin America, origin of the current epidemic. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned July 6 that “at current trends thousands of pregnant women in Puerto Rico will catch Zika.” While so far all cases in the United States appear to have been brought by travelers, local transmission may begin soon. The virus also spreads through sexual contact.
Five months have passed since President Obama requested nearly $1.9 billion in emergency funds to help states fight Zika. After stalling for months, the Republican-controlled House approved a $1.1 billion Zika aid bill laden with partisan baggage, including restrictions on the use of money for birth control services, a backdoor way to defund Planned Parenthood, and $750 million in offsetting cuts from other programs, including Obamacare and the Ebola virus response effort.
The White House threatened a veto, and Democrats balked in the Senate. They had earlier brokered a clean Zika bipartisan compromise bill in that chamber, without restrictions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who pledged to end partisan gridlock at the outset of this Congress, told Democrats on June 28 they had no choice but to accept the GOP version. “There are some disadvantages to not being in the majority — you don’t get everything exactly the way you want,” he said.
Yet Mr. McConnell lacks 60 votes to get the heavily freighted GOP bill through the Senate. So another week of gridlock has passed, without action to combat Zika: helping states and local jurisdictions with the difficult mosquito eradication effort; researching new vaccines; improving diagnostics; and educating the public, particularly pregnant women, about the risks.
Now there is little time for Congress to act before it goes on summer recess, not to return until September. We agree with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.): “Stop wasting time on the Senate floor with political red meat.” Now is the moment to set aside the maneuvering and blame-throwing and negotiate a truly bipartisan compromise — without poison pills, without cuts in other programs — to give public health officials the tools they need. The United States does not need or want a generation of brain-damaged babies. But Congress must act fast to keep that from happening.