Polman: Guess which party is imperiling babies
We all know by now that Republicans are well practiced at the art of magical thinking — massive tax cuts balance the budget, human-induced climate change isn't real, Donald Trump is a normal candidate — but the delusion that tops them all is their apparent belief that the Zika virus will slow its pace and take its cues from the ideological cheapskates on Capitol Hill.
Way back on Feb. 8, President Obama — acting on dire warnings from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — requested that the Republican Congress pony up nearly $1.9 billion to head off an impending public health emergency. The mosquito-borne Zika virus was nearing American shores and imperiling pregnant women, who, if infected, could give birth to babies with abnormally small heads and severe brain defects. What could be more prudent than to pump sufficient money into preventive mosquito control, vaccine research, and public education?
Sixteen weeks later, the Republican Congress has passed squat. With no end in sight. It simply refuses to spend the money that health experts know is necessary.
I had long assumed that, for all their hostility to governance, Republicans at minimum believed that protecting American families was paramount. (You know, family values.) I now stand corrected. Apparently, even babies are to be sacrificed on their ideological altar.
The Republican House wants to give the NIH and CDC only $622 million — roughly one-third of what Obama requested. That money would come from the funds that were OK'd in 2014 to fight the Ebola outbreak (we're still fighting Ebola, in Africa). The Republican House also says that the $622 million would basically expire in September, and at that point Obama would have to ask for more. Meanwhile, the Republican Senate wants to provide $1.1 billion — roughly half of what Obama requested. It toyed with the idea of financing the Zika fight by taking money out of Obamacare, but it finally passed the bill without doing something that stupid.
No doubt you've spotted the big problem: The Republican House and the Republican Senate are far apart on how many pennies should be pinched, and that stalemate is expected to last well into the summer. That should give the Zika virus more time to infect more people — unless, of course, the virus agrees to abide by the Republican timetable. More than 1,300 cases have already been confirmed; most are pregnant American travelers and citizens of Puerto Rico.
Public health experts can't fathom why Congress is behaving this way. Dr. Peter J. Hotez, at the Baylor College of Medicine, recently said, "I'm very worried, especially for our U.S. Gulf Coast states ... It's like refusing emergency preparedness funds for an approaching hurricane." Even the GOP-dominated National Governors Association pleaded for Congress to act, warning in a statement this month that "the nation is on the threshold of a public health emergency."
Best of all, we have Marco Rubio. Freed of the need to pander, the lame duck senator — mindful of Zika's threat to Florida — is clanging the alarm.
"Do we (spend) now before it becomes a crisis, or do we wait for it to become a crisis?" Rubio asked "Congress is going to have to explain to the people why it is we sat around and did nothing on something of this magnitude."
And let's not kid ourselves here. The main reason they've been sitting around since February is because the request came from Obama. Saving babies is a lower priority than hating Obama.
Two years ago, in the early days of the Ebola crisis, Republicans said that Obama wasn't doing enough to keep the disease away from American shores. Yet today, with Obama doing everything he can to keep Zika away from American shores, Republicans don't like that, either. And if, as expected, the Zika cases mount after the virus hits here, rest assured they'll try to blame Obama.
But like Rubio, a few rare Republicans prefer to be rational. Earlier this month, House member Vern Buchanan — mindful of the virus threatening his Florida district — announced his support for Obama's money request, and cited medical research which shows that Zika "eats away" at the brain and "destroys the ability to think."
Sounds like a Zika mutation has already infected his colleagues.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Pennsylvania.