Democratic lawmakers from Florida and beyond Friday demanded that Republican leaders call Congress into emergency session from its summer break to approve long-stalled Zika funding.
Even with the House and the Senate adjourned, the political wrangling in Washington intensified with news of the first four cases of mosquito-transmitted Zika in the United States, all in South Florida.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, was the only GOP senator to join Democrats in urging representatives and senators to return to the nation’s capital and deal with the Zika threat.
“The time to act is now,” Rubio told reporters. “We have waited too long.”
White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz criticized lawmakers for failing to act on a $1.9 billion emergency measure President Barack Obama sent to Capitol Hill in February to fund Zika prevention and research.
“Today’s news should be a wake-up call to Congress to get back to work,” Schultz told reporters.
Obama was briefed Wednesday about the four locally transmitted Zika cases in South Florida, Schultz said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has traveled to Washington to lobby lawmakers on Zika funding, also urged congressional action.
“Florida has become the first state in the nation to have local transmission of the Zika virus,” Scott said.
All 1,657 previously known Zika infections in the continental United States, including 382 in Florida, had been acquired by people traveling to areas known to have Zika infections.
Puerto Rico has an additional 4,684 infections, almost all of them transmitted via mosquito bites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Zika’s effects are usually mild, but the virus in pregnant women is believed to cause devastating birth defects, including microcephaly, whose sufferers have abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains.
The virus is carried primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but it can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse with an infected partner and through blood donations. Florida ordered blood banks in the Miami area to stop taking blood briefly this week until a test to detect Zika infection could be distributed.
Dr. Andrew Gurman, a Pennsylvania physician and head of the American Medical Association, called on political leaders in Washington to overcome their differences.
“Congress and the (Obama) administration must act as quickly as possible to ensure that our country is able to deploy the kind of public-health response necessary to keep our citizens safe and healthy,” Gurman said.
Obama and Scott spoke last week about Zika, Schultz said.
“The president wanted to make sure that Gov. Scott was getting the resources he needs,” Schultz said. “And that was a directive he issued to his team here at the White House.”
Schultz said the National Institute of Health recently had to suspend a study on the long-term health impacts of Zika because of insufficient funding.
Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican from Longboat Key, Florida, also broke with his party to push for Congress to provide more Zika money.
“Let’s be clear about the people that are most affected by this virus — pregnant mothers and their children,” Buchanan said.
“We should be laser-focused on protecting the most vulnerable among us,” he said. “Florida is ground zero for Zika.”
The Senate passed a compromise $1.1 billion Zika bill in May by a large, bipartisan vote, and the House approved similar legislation last month.
But when a conference committee of lawmakers from the two chambers convened to produce a single measure, House members added controversial clauses long opposed by Democrats.
Before leaving Washington for summer break, Senate Democrats voted against the modified Zika bill, leaving funding in limbo.
Among the hot-button clauses added to the measure were provisions cutting Obamacare money, adding abortion restrictions and reducing women’s health funds.
“Sadly, despite the overwhelming support that measure won in the Senate, the bill was hijacked by some in the House of Representatives who attached to it a number of highly partisan provisions before passing it in the middle of the night,” Sen. Bill Nelson, an Orlando Democrat, wrote in July 14 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday that the first cases of mosquito-transmitted Zika should prod lawmakers to break the impasse.
“For Floridians facing this new threat now, and for expectant mothers and families across America who are concerned about the threat of Zika, this Republican Congress must act,” she said.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County, Florida, Democrat, called the new local Zika cases “a startling new phase in this public health crisis.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart urged Obama to “re-purpose” money previously appropriated for other needs to combat Zika.
“Instead of waiting idly for the right political opportunity, he must continue using the $590 million that is available, only a fraction of which has been spent,” Diaz-Balart said.
Wasserman Schultz, however, objected, saying, “House Republicans have refused to spend any new funds on meaningful action, choosing to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose