WASHINGTON ― Some members of Congress have suggested that leaders won’t care about Zika until the mosquitoes are in their districts.
So Florida Rep. David Jolly (R) decided Wednesday to take that theory one step further, and brought a jar of the flying bloodsuckers from his Zika-infected state to the floor of the House of Representatives.
His idea, he said was to give lawmakers a little taste of the fear his constituents feel when they hear about Zika spreading in their neighborhoods while Congress has failed since February to approve any funding to combat the mosquito-borne virus.
“Can you imagine, colleagues, the fear and anxiety in this chamber if these 100 mosquitoes were outside this jar, not inside this jar?” Jolly said, displaying a swarming specimen container provided by a Florida research college.
It was not hard for Jolly to imagine the panic of his fellow members.
“Members of Congress would run down the hall to the physician’s office to be tested,” Jolly said. “They would spray themselves before coming down here. This is the fear of Floridians right here.”
The virus is best known for causing women to give birth to babies with microcephaly, but it’s also increasingly being linked to other severe problems including paralysis, vision loss and memory problems in adults.
The Obama administration sought $1.9 billion in emergency funding to combat the bugs and the virus. The Senate passed a compromise measure in May for $1.1 billion, but Republicans in the House insisted on adding riders to that bill targeting Planned Parenthood, the Clean Water Act and Obamacare, as well as protecting the display of the Confederate flag. Democrats refused to back the modified bill in July, and both sides continue to blame the other.
The Senate failed again Tuesday to pass the rider-laden version of the bill.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) did not seem impressed, or at least not impressed enough to give up Republican insistence on attaching unrelated provisions to the funding.
“Look, give me a break on this thing,” Ryan said at his weekly news conference with other leaders when asked if he’d push through a clean Zika bill. “We passed the $1.1 billion bill for Zika, which was the level agreed to in the Senate. We did the responsible thing,” he insisted, before accusing the Senate of playing games.
“I think they are just being wholly partisan with these endless filibusters,” Ryan added, referring to the failed Senate votes. “The Senate has been blatantly political with Zika funding.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) thought Ryan was missing the point.
“So when the speaker says give me a break ... no let’s give the babies a break. Let’s pass this bill,” Pelosi said at an event with other Democratic leaders, two doctors and a mother holding her baby.
She focused on the Zika bill rider that prevents groups like Planned Parenthood from helping people access contraception. Zika can be sexually transmitted, even if the infected partner shows no symptoms of having the disease.
“I grant [Republicans] their position on abortion,” Pelosi said. “But contraception? Contraception, contraception, really? I know we’re talking about mosquitoes, but do we need to talk about the birds and the bees at the same time?”
Florida’s Republicans, at least, are beginning to side with Democrats.
“It is not good enough to work on a compromise for months and months and months with no solution,” Jolly said. “The time for the politics of Zika is over. The politics of Zika are garbage right now. The fact that candidates are going to spend money on commercials about Zika instead of responding together in a bipartisan, bicameral way in a divided government to a public health crisis that Americans understand ― we are wasting time. That is why I’m joined by these mosquitoes today.”
Ryan’s statement Wednesday morning lowers the prospect of passing a clean Zika bill. The funding may have to be attached to a measure to keep the government from shutting down after Sept. 30. The federal government also estimates it will run out of money to deal with Zika by the end of the month if Congress does not act.
Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) both said later that the details of Zika funding were under discussion along with a plan to fund the government through Dec. 9.
Asked if he was optimistic that the GOP’s add-ons would be removed, and would not show up in the government funding bill, Reid said he was.
“I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful they understand the predicament they’ve created. They can’t close the government again,” Reid said, referring to the last time the government shut down over GOP riders targeting Obamacare.
This story has been updated with comment from Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).