In Swing-State Florida, Zika Bites

In Swing-State Florida, Zika Bites
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Florida’s senators want Congress to return to Washington as soon as possible to address a national health risk from the Zika virus, which is spreading throughout the southern part of their state.

Their call prompted Gov. Rick Scott to ask for federal assistance and came as federal public health SWAT teams arrived in the Sunshine State to issue travel and other warnings.

The mosquito-borne infection, now confirmed as a health threat in the United States, stirred fierce partisan finger-pointing over funding disputes in the nation’s capital during the last four months, but Zika’s spread has apparently changed some lawmakers’ minds about taking August off without throwing resources at an emerging summer crisis.

Florida, with its 29 Electoral College votes, is a must-win swing state for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. At the moment, the two nominees are tied there, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average

A spokesman for the Clinton campaign said the Democratic nominee “believes that Congress needs to go back and pass the compromise bill that the Senate passed overwhelmingly, or come up with a new solution, free of politics.”

Florida’s governor officially asked for federal assistance with the news that there are more than a dozen confirmed Zika cases in the Miami area and expectations of more, because only one in five people with the virus shows symptoms. The virus, spread through the bloodstream by mosquito bites and sexual contact with infected persons, can cause severe birth defects in pregnant women, as well as conditions tied to compromised immune systems. More than 1,658 cases of the virus have been reported in the U.S. Public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control issued a travel warning for a part of Miami Monday, and advised men, pregnant women, and women of child-bearing age to take precautions.

On Monday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a South Florida resident defeated in the GOP presidential primaries and now campaigning for re-election to the Senate, joined Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Sen. Harry Reid, minority leader from Nevada, in urging Congress to interrupt its August break to resolve differences over funding to conduct more research and try to develop a vaccine.

Rubio said he supports President Obama’s $1.9 billion funding proposal, but believes House Republicans will not relent in their opposition to the extent of president’s request. Those lawmakers argue the government has sufficient funds to tackle Zika. The CDC and National Institutes of Health say they will run out of available funding soon.

“I’ve supported every single Zika initiative that has been brought before us, and I hope we’ll return to Washington quickly, take a day and just pass this funding measure so we can start to get funds flowing,” Rubio said. “A week ago, before the [confirmed Miami] cases were announced, I had asked President Obama to take $300 million that’s disposable, that he has under his control, and fully utilize that to get ahead of it. This is a health care issue. It’s also an economic issue.”

The White House, asked if Obama would call Congress back into special session in August to reckon with the spread of Zika, said lawmakers could reconvene to resolve their differences any time “it’s convenient.”

“We’ve done what we can,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters Friday. “The president was calling this ‘urgent’ back in February, and Congress still decided to do nothing about it. So it's unfortunate that Congress left town without addressing this, but we should also remember that the president reprogrammed a lot of money, a lot of federal funding to address this in the wake of Republican recalcitrance.” 

The president is poised to begin his family vacation in Martha’s Vineyard Aug. 6 and is not expected to return to Washington for several weeks.

On Monday, the White House ramped up its pressure on Republicans by calling attention to Congress’s summer break until after Labor Day and to the challenge of developing a Zika vaccine without additional federal appropriations. The spread of the virus in Miami should be a “wake-up call,” Schultz said.

“Vaccine development is one of the areas that has been slowed because Congress has not funded this response,” he told reporters traveling with the president to Atlanta, home base for the CDC. 

“Unfortunately, Congress left town for about seven weeks without doing anything. … So if anything, we hope that this provides a wake-up call to members of Congress that when they get back to Washington from their vacation, they can get to work on addressing this problem.”

James Arkin contributed to this report.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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