Senate negotiators revealed a breakthrough in Zika funding Thursday under renewed pressure from Florida lawmakers and mayors to break a seven-month political impasse over the aid.
Just a few hours after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine met with South Florida members of Congress and visited the White House to push for the stalled Zika money, the Senate released a draft appropriations bill without "poison pill" Zika clauses to fund the federal government through the Sept. 30 end of the current fiscal year.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, hailed the breakthrough in a Senate speech, but he warned the $1.1 billion in Zika funds could still be stalled because they're part of a much larger appropriations measure.
"It took too long, but this is where we are now," Rubio said. "Better late than never."
Rubio, who is running for Senate re-election against Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the Zika deal would hold.
But the failed presidential candidate warned that it could still come undone because of competing funding demands for urgent needs from lawmakers representing other states.
"There are all sorts of other issues that are still being debated," Rubio said. "Broader issues are at play that could derail Zika that have nothing to do with Zika."
Congressional aides said the revised measure and supporting documentation did not contain extraneous provisions targeting Planned Parenthood and the federal health insurance program.
Those provisions had stalled a $1.9 billion emergency plan to fund Zika research and prevention that President Barack Obama had sent Congress in February.
Gimenez and Levine huddled earlier in the day with key lawmakers on Capitol Hill and met with White House officials to help push Congress to approve long-delayed Zika prevention and research aid.
The mayors gathered with Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, along with Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in the office of Diaz-Balart before heading to the White House.
"South Florida is ground zero for Zika, and we need Congress to step in to help us keep our millions of residents and visitors safe," Gimenez said after the Capitol Hill meeting. "I appreciate the full support of our state delegation as we continue to urge Congress to provide the funding our community urgently needs."
The mayors arrived in Washington a week after Gov. Rick Scott came to the nation's capital to advocate for $1.1 billion in emergency Zika funds, which have been wrapped into a larger appropriations bill to keep the federal government operating beyond the Sept. 30 end of the current fiscal year.
"We all agree that funding needs to be passed as quickly as possible," Diaz-Balart said. "I strongly believe that we need to provide every penny needed to fight this disease, and not one dollar less. This virus poses a threat to every Floridian."
However, the $1.1 billion now earmarked to combat Zika is less than the $1.9 billion that President Barack Obama sought in February when he sent the emergency legislative package to Congress. Partisan political fights over extraneous policy provisions attached to the original measure have delayed funding for seven months.
The delay has forced the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to borrow money earlier appropriated to treat and research Ebola and other diseases. A federal clinical trial for a Zika vaccine is on hold until new money arrives.
"If this money doesn’t start flowing, if we don’t get something done here, research on the vaccine is going to stop or come to a grind," Rubio said on the Senate floor. "If you want to save money on Zika, develop a vaccine."
Microcephaly, which causes infants to be born with abnormally small brains and heads, is the worst of several birth defects Zika can cause.
"I am confident we will be able to secure funding to protect the lives of unborn babies and their families," Diaz-Balart said.
The disease is carried primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but it can also be transmitted via sexual intercourse with an infected partner.
There were 867 cases of Zika in Florida as of Wednesday, more than any other state except New York.
Puerto Rico has almost 19,500 infections. Florida and New York each have about 1 million Puerto Rican residents, and there is frequent contact between them and their relatives and friends on the island.
Most of the Florida infections were in South Florida. Eighty-nine involved pregnant women.
Photo credit: Jose A. Iglesias, El Nuevo Herald