WASHINGTON - Sen. Marco Rubio said Wednesday the growing threat of Zika "as a full-blown public health crisis" demands swift action as partisan gridlock over funding remains on Capitol Hill.
"I strongly believe that inaction on Zika is inexcusable, and I am optimistic that after reviewing the facts and hearing from the experts here today, it will reinforce the fact that we must do something quickly," Rubio said during a hearing he convened as chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
The Florida Republican has joined in Democratic calls for $1.9 billion in funding and supported a measure for $1.1 billion. He noted that he first raised questions about the threat in January, and in April, he bucked his party on the $1.9 billion sought by the Obama administration.
But despite his advocacy, Democrats have been attacking Rubio as a latecomer to the issue. So too has GOP Senate rival Carlos Beruff.
"Now that Marco Rubio needs Floridians’ votes, he’s all of a sudden interested in an issue that’s been on the horizon for over a year and has been impacting Floridians since January," the Beruff campaign said Wednesday. "The voters of Florida deserve a senator who’s there for them when they need him, not when it’s politically advantageous.”
Rubio said that after reading about Zika in January -- he was on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa -- he reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection "to express my concerns and ask what they were doing or could do about this, given Miami International Airport’s standing as the Gateway to the Americas, with more flights and passengers going to and coming from Brazil than any other U.S. airport."
He bucked his party in April to support the $1.9 billion in funding. "I don't want us to take our eye off of this because if this issue really takes off on us here in the United States, we don't want to say that we knew it was happening but we ignored it and did nothing about it," he said. Rubio has continued to press for funding, even voting for the House's $1.1 billion package while calling it imperfect.
"Here on the Senate floor and back home in my state, I have called for action from my colleagues and urged support for fully funding the President’s funding request to deal with this virus," he said Wednesday. "I’ve supported every single Zika proposal that has come before the Senate. Every single one. I’ve answered the call to act."
The current stalemate has to do with the House bill, which Democrats object to over provisions they say are designed to hurt Planned Parenthood. "This is why people hate Congress. This is why people hate Washington," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Wednesday.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., also bemoaned the partisanship over the issue but said she agreed with Rubio's call for urgency.
Rubio asked what would happen if Congress leaves for recess without providing more funding. "We will do the best we can, but this is no way to fight epidemics," replied Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times