A bill providing $82.5 billion in discretionary funding for 2017 military and Veterans Affairs appropriations and Zika funding has stalled in the Senate. The bill would provide funding for veterans’ benefits and programs and to house, train, and equip military personnel; provide housing and services to military families; and help maintain base infrastructure.
Voting on the bill fell along party lines and failed to advance when it could not muster 60 votes. No Democrats voted for the bill, and 2 Republicans also voted against the bill, which contained an unrelated provision that would have eliminated a rule that bars the flying of Confederate flags at veterans’ cemeteries. Democrats also complained about a provision that waived Clean Water Act rules to allow the increased spraying of pesticides in waterways, even though Zika-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes do not breed in rivers and in other moving waterways. Another provision would have prohibited funding from going to contraceptive services, like Planned Parenthood, for women in Zika-affected areas.
Senate Democrats also expressed concern that the House version of the bill reduced VA funding by $500 million. President Obama has promised to veto the bill unless the additional provisions were removed.
The bill provided $52.8 billion for VA medical services, including $9 billion for mental health care services; $7.3 billion in services for homeless veterans; $1.5 billion for hepatitis C treatment; $284 million for traumatic brain injury treatment; $250 million in rural health initiatives; and $173 million for suicide prevention. Another $260 million in the bill is earmarked for the modernization of the VA electronic health record system.
In addition, the bill contained appropriations of $7.9 billion for military construction. Specifically, the bill included the President’s requested $304 million for construction and alterations of new or existing military medical facilities.
Since February, Democrats have been pushing for emergency funding for Zika, with President Obama asking Congress for $1.9 billion in the fight. The Senate passed legislation in May to provide the $1.1 billion in funding.
The new bill’s failure to pass comes at a season of urgency for combatting against the Zika in southern states, which are expected to be hit the hardest. Florida has reported 223 Zika cases, including 40 pregnant women thus far. The most recent case of an infant born with microcephaly in the U.S. was confirmed in Florida the same day the bill was blocked.
"If you don't think the Zika crisis is an emergency, just wait," warned Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla. "These numbers are just going to increase...We need to stop playing these political games."
Due to the vote, advances on projects from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), such as working on 3 potential vaccines against Zika and overseeing a study of pregnant woman infected, could be slowed.
“If we don’t get new money, we won’t be able to do things at a pace that is necessary and appropriate to the urgency of this threat,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the NIAID.
The bill that was blocked was the third attempt to come to an agreement among Senate Republicans and Democrats on funding for Zika, and with Senate taking a brief recess for the Fourth of July holiday, it leaves little time left to solve the problem.