Health officials said they would do the best they can to fight the spread of Zika if the Senate doesn’t approve a $1.1 billion spending plan, but said the money is needed to help agencies slow the proliferation of the disease.
The Senate is expected to vote once again on the House-approved spending bill this week, before it adjourns for its summer recess. Democrats opposed the GOP-backed measure, saying Republicans packed the bill with provisions designed to deny funding for Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico and ease rules on pesticide sprays.
It’s unclear whether the Senate will approve the measure if it comes back for a vote before the summer recess. But Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee Wednesday that the money was needed to slow the spread.
“We will do the best we can, but this is no way to fight epidemics,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues. “It means we can’t begin the long-term projects to figure out how to protect women more effectively, to come up with better ways to diagnosis Zika, and to accelerate mosquito control strategies.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, the chair of the Committee, convened the hearing Wednesday to discuss the risks and response to the Zika crisis. Rubio said the spread of Zika is a “growing threat,” and called on lawmakers to put partisanship aside to approve the spending.
“Inaction on Zika is simply inexcusable,” said Rubio. “Something needs to happen quickly. It has taken far too long.”
The hearing came the same day the Florida Department of Health announced 11 new cases of travel-related Zika had been reported in Florida. There are now 293 cases of Zika in Florida; 43 of which involve pregnant women regardless of symptoms.
There are more than 1,130 travel-related cases of Zika in the United States. The CDC reported there are more than 2,500 of locally acquired cases in United States territories. Most of those cases have been reported in Puerto Rico.
“We must begin to treat Zika with a sense of urgency we have not seen until now,” said Rubio, who went on to say he would be an advocate for any legislation to combat the spread of the disease.
Rubio supported President Barack Obama’s initial $1.9 billion request to help curb the spread. He also supported the $1.1 billion Senate proposal, and later backed the House-backed spending plan.
“If this funding doesn’t happen … then we face a situation where all the innovative work going into getting ahead of this will not be able to move forward,” said Rubio.
While Rubio has called for swift action on the issue in recent weeks, his critics have called him out for his slow response. On Wednesday, both the Florida Democratic Party and his opponent said Rubio put his presidential campaign ahead of Floridians.
“Marco Rubio waited a full year before deciding to hold his first hearing on the virus that has already infected at least 282 Floridians. Rubio recklessly placed his presidential ambitions ahead of the job he was elected to do, even as Florida faced numerous environmental and public health crises,” said Allison Tant, the chairwoman of the FDP. “This unacceptable dereliction of duty sends a clear message to Floridians about where Rubio’s priorities lie. As Rubio hits the campaign trail during Congress’ summer recess, Florida’s families will not forget that the only thing No Show Marco can be counted on to do is look out for himself.”
The Democrats found an unlikely ally in Carlos Beruff, the Manatee County Republican challenging Rubio in the Republican primary. Beruff’s campaign said Rubio was only interested in the issue because he “needs Floridians’ votes.”
“Now that Marco Rubio needs Floridians’ votes, he’s all of a sudden interested in an issue that’s been on the horizon for over a year and has been impacting Floridians since January,” said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for Beruff. “The voters of Florida deserve a senator who’s there for them when they need him, not when it’s politically advantageous.”