iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A billion-dollar bill to help address the Zika virus crisis fell apart on the Senate floor Tuesday over perennial partisan squabbles -- namely, about whether to devote funding to the family planning organization Planned Parenthood.
Democrats blamed Republicans for using the bill to “whack” the organization, while Republicans say the bill includes plenty of funding, allocated in the most effective way, to target those most affected by the Zika virus, including those seeking contraceptive services.
Both statements are disputed by the opposing side, but the fact is that the bill failed to receive the 60 votes necessary to advance, largely over disagreements about a portion of the money that amounted to less than 9 percent of its total funding.
The Zika bill also contains provisions related to the environment and the display of Confederate flags that Democrats find objectionable. In addition to the policy specifics, Democrats also object to the fact that the House Republicans revised and passed the conference report on a party-line vote in the dead of night last week amid the protests of House Democrats who were staging an unrelated sit-in on gun safety.
But no provision got more public push-back from Democrats than the lack of direct funding to Planned Parenthood.
Just before the 52-48 vote on the Zika bill, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer assailed his Republican colleagues for blocking funding specifically to the organization.
“Republicans can't miss a chance to whack Planned Parenthood, even if their services are exactly what can help prevent the spread of this debilitating virus,” said Schumer, the likely incoming Senate Democratic leader.
The White House threatened on Monday to veto the bill, citing its inadequate funding overall and claiming it would “block” access to contraception.
“The bill includes an ideological rider blocking access to contraception for women in the United States, including women in Puerto Rico, even though this is a sexually transmitted disease,” White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said.
While the bill doesn’t directly provide funds for private family planning organizations, Republican Senate aides note that it does contain $95 million for public health departments, hospitals and public health plan reimbursement through what’s known as a Social Services Block Grant (SSBG).
Republicans say this grant allows each state and territory the maximum flexibility to deliver the funding wherever it is most needed. Of the funding, $40 million also goes specifically to 20 community health centers throughout Puerto Rico, where the virus is expected to have the biggest impact.
They also note that the SSBG funding would be available to a network of 13 federally funded family planning clinics throughout Puerto Rico called PREVEN, which among other services provide contraception, and that Planned Parenthood providers and patients can still get Medicaid reimbursements for Zika care.
“If Planned Parenthood wants to accept your Medicaid, you can absolutely get a reimbursement through them,” a Senate Republican aide said. Democrats and Planned Parenthood argue that using the SSBG to fund Zika efforts in this bill, which is the final product of a reconciling or “conference” between House and Senate versions, is not the most effective way to target funds, as Republicans claim.
A Senate Democratic aide said the initial Senate version of the bill, which had bipartisan support, contained a more workable proposal: funding health care services through a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program called the Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grant Program, which the aide said more directly assists women and babies, the populations most affected by Zika infection.
“You would think that in response to a virus that primarily impacts women’s health that has a lot to do with pregnancy, and contraception is uniquely equipped to prevent, then you’d want to invest in organizations that are really good at providing that kind of care,” the aide added.
The aide also noted that the bill makes access to contraceptives more difficult for women, especially in Puerto Rico, because the Senate bill structures its SSBG funds to exclude private health care agencies like Planned Parenthood.
“Eligible providers could only be public health departments, hospitals and entities reimbursed by public health plans. This would make access to contraceptive and prenatal services more difficult, especially for women in Puerto Rico.”
In response to that criticism, Stephen Worley, a spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Republicans, said, “Democrats should be more concerned with the outcome than whether or not their preferred programs are funded.”
But Senate Democrats also acknowledge that the current bill doesn’t “block” access to contraception, which is what the White House claimed Monday. Rather, Democrats object to the bill’s lack of additional funding specifically for Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics.
“Obviously there’s no rule in this legislation that says you can’t get care for Zika as an individual if you go into a clinic. But there’s no supplemental funding to address the additional need that goes to providers who are uniquely equipped to support this kind of response,” the aide said.
Planned Parenthood also slammed the bill in a statement, saying it “exclude[d] the International Planned Parenthood Federation Puerto Rican member association, Profamilias, from the Zika response.” Profamilia appears to have seven facilities around the island.
After the bill failed Tuesday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate would address the issue again sometime after the Fourth of July weekend. But time is running out for the body, with only two weeks of the legislative session left before it leaves for the rest of the summer.
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