GOP, Democrats seek to overcome Zika funding impasse

Melissa Nann Burke

Washington — Republicans and Democrats in Congress are looking to include emergency funding to combat the Zika virus in their year-end spending bill this month after a partisan stalemate over Planned Parenthood doomed previous Zika bills for most of the mosquito season.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Monday that while negotiations are continuing, he expects to move forward this week with a short-term bill to fund the federal government through Dec. 9 “and include funds for Zika control and our veterans.”

Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said Tuesday that “Democrats are willing to work with Republicans to secure Zika funding. But we will flatly reject any attempt to undermine women’s health.”

House GOP leaders haven’t indicated if they agree with McConnell’s approach, though some Republicans are optimistic. Rep. Fred Upon, R-St. Joseph, said he intends to vote for a funding agreement to prevent a government shutdown this month “which I’m confident will include additional funds to fight Zika.”

Upton’s House Energy & Commerce Committee held hearings on Zika in March. The mosquito-borne virus has infected roughly 17,000 people in the United States, including 52 travel-related transmissions in Michigan, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The Obama administration in February requested $1.9 billion in emergency Zika funding from Congress. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tom Frieden, has said his agency will likely run out of money to fight the virus by month’s end.

Senate Democrats, including Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township, last week blocked a $1.1 billion bill for a third time that would help develop a vaccine and research the virus, which can cause severe birth defects. The House voted June 23 to approve the same bill, with the Michigan delegation divided mostly along party lines.

Democrats in both chambers have objected to the GOP-written legislation over language they interpret as excluding grant money for family planning or women’s health clinics, such as affiliates of Planned Parenthood, for contraception and other health care coverage to combat the virus, which can be transmitted sexually.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, has called for a “clean” bill without the language affecting Planned Parenthood. “The Zika virus has no ideology, so Congress must stop playing politics,” Kildee said.

Republicans maintain that Democrats are manufacturing the issue to use as ammunition in this fall’s campaigns, noting that the legislation doesn’t mention Planned Parenthood and doesn’t affect existing Planned Parenthood funding.

“People are fed up with Washington for precisely this type of behavior,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland. “It’s absolutely shameful that Senate Democrats are more concerned with making this a campaign issue than the safety of the American people.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has found the issue murky. In its current form, the Senate measure would provide grant funding for health services “provided by public health departments, hospitals or reimbursed through public health plans.”

By designating funds for only these specific entities, “it is not clear whether public health departments or hospitals could subcontract with Planned Parenthood or other entities, but the controversy surrounding the purposes of these funds may make states or territories hesitant to do so regardless,” the research service wrote in a Sept. 1 report on the congressional response to Zika.

CRS researchers said it may be permissible for states or territories to provide grant funds to Planned Parenthood affiliates that are eligible providers of a public health plan such as Medicaid. It would exclude ProFamilias, an international partner of Planned Parenthood with several clinics in Puerto Rico, because ProFamilias doesn’t receive Medicaid funding, CRS said.

Democrats, including Rep. Sandy Levin of Royal Oak, have urged the Senate to return to a bipartisan package passed by the chamber in May to provide $1.1 billion in Zika funding through September 2017. That compromise legislation did not have the “poison pill” language that Democrats are resisting. However, the House rejected that measure.

“The clock is ticking on #Zika. It’s irresponsible to not move forward with the bipartisan agreement we passed in May!” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, tweeted last week.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit, objects to the lack of a provision from an earlier Zika measure that would have banned Confederate flags at some veterans cemeteries. Republicans have chosen to “rally around the confederate flag and attack Planned Parenthood, over addressing this crisis,” Conyers said.

Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township was the only Michigan Republican to oppose the bill when it was before the House in June. Amash said he voted against the legislation because it exempted the spending from budget-spending caps, and much of the spending was not offset with cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.

“Congress can address this issue and others in a fiscally responsible manner if it chooses to try,” Amash said last week.

Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, who missed the House roll call following a flight delay, says she would have voted in favor of it. Congress needs to “put politics aside,” she said. “I am hopeful that the House and the Senate will come to a quick resolve.”

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