In a recent editorial for The Hill — a newspaper that covers Congress — Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, got right to the point. “Zika is not a theoretical threat,” she wrote. “It is very real, and scientists are warning that it could have catastrophic impacts right here in the U.S.”
Ideally, the Senate will heed those threats today when it is expected to consider competing plans for combatting the disease. In February, President Obama requested $1.9 billion to fight Zika, a request that largely has gone ignored until now. Senate Democrats have been in favor of approving the request; Senate Republicans have been leaning toward $1.1 billion in funding — so long as that money is taken from funding earmarked for the Affordable Care Act. It is the same kind of gridlock that has so poorly served the American public in recent years.
But last week, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced a bipartisan agreement forged with Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to approve $1.1 billion in straightforward funding — an idea designed to draw support from both parties.
Meanwhile, Herrera Beutler has been beating the drum in the House of Representatives for funding to fight Zika. In so doing, she has gone against many fellow Republicans, embracing the idea that sometimes it’s more important to do the right thing rather than adhere to partisan dogma. That often seems a novel concept these days in Washington, D.C.
Zika is a mosquito-transmitted disease that can have horrific consequences. It has been linked to microcephaly, which causes infants to be born with small heads and brain damage. It also has been linked to a rare neurological disorder, Guillain-Barre’ syndrome, which can result in paralysis. The disease has wreaked havoc in Latin America and South America, particularly in Brazil, and the extent of the danger can be seen in some health professionals calling for this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics to be canceled or moved.
The disease has entered the U.S. through travelers, and there are fears that mosquitos carrying the disease are moving north toward this country. “Right now there is no single threat to the health of infants in the U.S. more deserving of swift congressional action,” wrote Herrera Beutler, who is pregnant with her second child.
The $1.1 billion compromise forged by Murray and Blunt is expected to be attached to a spending bill that covers military construction and veterans programs. About one-third of the funding would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with another $248 million toward fighting the virus overseas and $200 million to the National Institutes of Health for vaccine research.
All this would require a fissure in the seemingly intractable blockade that is Washington politics. Republicans who control both the Senate and the House have been slow to respond to Obama’s request, and calls to take funding from the Affordable Care Act amount to shameful political gamesmanship. In truth, responding to the Zika virus now would be a fiscally conservative approach; as Herrera Beutler wrote, “The lifetime cost of caring for each child born with microcephaly could exceed $10 million.”
Sen. Murray helped lead the way in forging a path for a robust response to the Zika virus, and fellow senators would be wise to follow her. The threat, indeed, is not theoretical, and it calls for action rather than rhetoric in the halls of Congress.