Last week, the Senate again blocked $1.1 billion in desperately needed funding to help research, prevent, and fight the spread of the Zika virus—all for political reasons.
The last time I checked, members of Congress are sent to Washington with the duty to protect the American people, not play political games with their lives. Unfortunately, when it comes to passing Zika funding legislation, the lives of those my colleagues and I represent in Florida are being used as bargaining chips for political gain.
The thousands of people throughout our country infected with and threatened by this deadly virus, including pregnant women and babies, do not care about political agendas. They care about the safety of themselves and their children. We have a responsibility to protect these people from this dangerous virus; however, Congress has ignored their pleas. That is why I have consistently called on my colleagues in both chambers to put politics aside, come together, and immediately pass a funding measure that provides the necessary resources to eradicate the Zika virus.
This clash over funding has gone on way too long. The gravity of Zika’s harmful effects hit Florida more than seven months ago when the Florida Surgeon General declared a public health emergency in response to several confirmed travel-related cases of Zika. Shortly thereafter, President Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion in funding to combat the virus. I supported, and still support, the president’s request because this issue is solely about saving lives, and protecting children and pregnant women, not anyone’s political affiliation.
In May, the House and Senate passed separate Zika funding measures that were resolved in a conference committee, resulting in the agreed upon $1.1 billion funding legislation that is at issue today. I supported and helped pass this critical funding bill in June so we could swiftly provide assistance and protection to Floridians and all Americans. It is now September, and the Senate still refuses to pass this bill.
Since June, I have called on my colleagues numerous times, in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle, to unite and pass this bill for the sake of the people we represent. I sent a letter to House and Senate Leadership last month, calling for the bill’s immediate consideration and passage, as well as a letter to the Center for Disease Control, requesting reconsideration of Zika funding allocations that accurately represent Florida’s imminent funding need and greater infection risk compared to the rest of the U.S.
I also recently joined a bipartisan group of Florida congressional members in requesting House and Senate leadership to end this stalemate and put forth a clean funding package so we can start fighting the Zika virus and stop fighting each other. It is inexcusable that the lives of Floridians are being used as collateral for unrelated measures.
To date, Florida alone has confirmed more than 600 cases of Zika, including infants born with Zika-related microcephaly and more than 80 pregnant women. Florida is also the only state to have locally-transmitted cases of Zika, now at 40 and increasing. These locally-transmitted cases are quickly spreading throughout the state and have even been confirmed right in the backyard of my congressional district in the Tampa Bay region.
Pregnant women are terrified to step outside their homes in fear that mosquitos carrying the virus will infect them and cause grave harm to their babies, and parents have no idea what the long-term effects are on their children who become infected while simply playing outside. We cannot let people keep suffering this way.
Because Congress has provided no funding relief, Florida Governor Rick Scott has had to use his emergency executive authority to allocate a minimal $26.2 million in state money for Zika preparedness, prevention and response. However, this limited funding is quickly running out due to the rapid increase in infections.
Zika is not just a threat to Florida. It is a threat to the entire nation. There are more than 16,000 confirmed Zika cases in the U.S., and health advisory signs are posted throughout U.S. airports, warning travelers to protect themselves from Zika. How are we supposed to prevent this type of medical threat and epidemic when those who were elected to protect our people from harm refuse to do so?
The babies, mothers and fathers, Floridians and all Americans affected by Zika do not care that I am a Republican or that a colleague of mine is a Democrat, and neither do I. They just urgently need our help, and we were sent to Washington to provide it. We must work together, stop pulling political stunts, and put the needs of those suffering from this virus, and those who face potential infection, first.
Let’s pass a clean funding bill to provide the essential $1.1 billion needed to combat and eradicate the Zika virus in Florida and across our country, and let’s get it done now.
First elected to Congress in 2010, U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., is part of the House leadership as senior deputy majority whip.