US Senate stalemate holds up funds to combat Zika

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin- Madison doing an ultrasound scan on a pregnant monkey infected with the Zika virus. Studies like this may be affected if the US government does not pass a new federal spending Bill.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin- Madison doing an ultrasound scan on a pregnant monkey infected with the Zika virus. Studies like this may be affected if the US government does not pass a new federal spending Bill.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • Senate Democrats on Tuesday blocked a federal spending Bill that would have provided US$1.1 billion (S$1.5 billion) to fight the mosquito-borne Zika virus, saying Republicans had sabotaged the legislation with politically charged provisions.

The move raised the possibility that no new money would be available soon to fight the disease as southern states brace themselves for a summer outbreak.

The stalemate, accompanied by a sharp war of words on the Senate floor, raised the prospect that the partisan divide in Congress was hindering the government's ability to respond effectively to a pressing public health emergency.

Democrats charged that Republicans had booby-trapped the legislation by adding provisions that would restrict the role of Planned Parenthood, the women's health organisation, and similar clinics in providing contraceptive services related to fighting the Zika virus, which can be transmitted sexually.

The Democrats also said that Republicans had inserted a provision cutting US$540 million in financing from the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law, and that they had stripped a House provision that would ban the flying of the Confederate flag in federal cemeteries.

Republicans, in turn, accused Democrats of manufacturing excuses for blocking the Bill, but they did not dispute that some of the provisions favoured Republican policy positions.

Democrats and the White House have been pushing since February for the Republican majorities in Congress to approve US$1.9 billion in emergency financing to fight Zika, which can cause brain damage and other serious defects in infants born to infected mothers.

Whichever side is more to blame, it was clear that no new government funds would be approved to fight the Zika virus until after Congress returned from a recess for the Fourth of July holiday. And even then, the prospects of an agreement are uncertain.

Democrats on Tuesday urged renewed negotiations, but Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, speaking to reporters off the floor, said matter-of-factly: "There's not going to be another opportunity to deal with this in the near future."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2016, with the headline 'US Senate stalemate holds up funds to combat Zika'. Print Edition | Subscribe