As Zika crisis grows in Florida, Congress still deadlocked on funding

As Florida state and local officials scramble to contain a Zika virus outbreak in Miami Beach – a serious threat to the region’s $24 billion-a-year tourism industry — congressional lawmakers from both parties continue to be locked in battle over a billion dollars in vital funding that experts say is needed to keep the virus from breaking out across America.

To underscore that Florida has become the latest “ground zero” in the U.S. mainland battle against the mosquito-borne virus, Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that there have been five new cases identified in Miami Beach, some involving tourists — while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning Friday that pregnant women should stay out the region. To date, there have been more than 500 reported cases of Zika in the Sunshine State, with 63 reported among pregnant women.

But Miami isn’t the only hard-hit area.

Puerto Rico officials have warned that as many as 270 babies may be born with the severe birth defect known as microcephaly caused by Zika infections in their mothers during pregnancy. As of August 12, Puerto Rico had 10,690 laboratory-confirmed cases of Zika, including 1,035 pregnant women.

In New York City, 49 women have tested positive for Zika since April, and one baby has been born with microcephaly. Federal officials say that there have been 420 Zika cases in the Big Apple. The outbreak has pushed Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio to renew his calls for Congress to pass a significant funding bill.

In February the Obama administration asked for $1.9 billion in order to fight the virus, including funding for vaccine development. A $1.1 billion funding package was proposed in the Senate, but the bill failed after Democrats claimed their Republican colleagues packed the legislation with politically-charged amendments — in particular, a provision that would block the use of $95 million of federal grants to be used to distribute birth control for women in Puerto Rico. Democrats claimed the restrictions were aimed to punish Planned Parenthood, but they also objected to provisions that would loosen restrictions on the use of pesticides.

Shortly after the bill stalled in the Senate in June, Congress broke for summer recess, leaving unresolved the question of Zika funding. Since then, however, the crisis has spiraled. Experts say that with money running out to fight the virus, health officials are resorting to using funds meant for other diseases.

There has been bipartisan agreement in much of Florida’s congressional delegation, with both Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson saying $1.1 billion is not enough, and both have called for Congress to accede to the full $1.9 billion requested by the Obama administration.

The fight places both senators in awkward positions. Rubio has been forced to increase pressure on Republican nominee Donald Trump to be more outspoken about the virus, and has broken from many in his party for calling for such a large dose of federal funding and agreeing with the Obama administration.

Meanwhile Nelson has also been caught in the middle of demands between his state and his party. On one hand he has passionately called for more funding, but on the other he rejected the Senate bill for taking funding away from Puerto Rico and for limiting its use.

"Not only does it take $500 million in health care funding away from Puerto Rico, it limits access to birth control services needed to help curb the spread of the virus and prevent terrible birth defects. This is not a serious solution,” Nelson said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

The escalating panic over the virus, and fears it may turn into a full blown epidemic in the United States, has slowly turned the issue into a national campaign issue on which there appears to be growing bipartisan consensus for Congress to act -- perhaps in part due to Florida’s role as a key swing state.

Earlier this month, Clinton urged Congress to cut short its summer recess and immediately pass funding for a response, blaming congressional Republicans for inaction.

"I am very disappointed that the Congress went on recess before actually agreeing what they would do to put the resources into this fight," she said.

Trump, meanwhile, told the Miami Herald earlier this month that he would push Congress to “let some of the funds that they’re asking for come in” to fight the virus.

When asked if he would specifically ask Congress, he said “absolutely,” adding: “They’re fighting for it, and hopefully that’s going to be approved very soon.”

Although it was unclear if Trump was referring to the $1.1 billion in the Senate bill, or the $1.9 billion requested by the Obama administration, it appears to be a rare moment of bipartisan agreement between the White House hopefuls. The Trump and Clinton campaigns did not respond to a request for comment from

Congress returns in September, and there is a little doubt that calls for action will be significantly more urgent, and more heated, than they were in July.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.