WASHINGTON — Members of Congress returned to work after a lengthy summer break on Tuesday by blaming each other for failing to pass $1.1 billion in funding to combat the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer charged Republicans with using the Zika bill to score political points instead of dealing with a virus that has infected thousands of pregnant women in the United States.
"It's a message week for the Republican base and it is another week squandered by the Republican leadership in the House," Hoyer told reporters.
He said a previous Zika funding package passed by House Republicans was laced with "poison pills" Democrats could not support that were meant to appeal to the GOP base.
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters that it was in fact the Democrats who were playing politics with Zika by filibustering the spending bill in the Senate.
“Why would the Democrats continue to do that with American lives in jeopardy? That’s the question that needs to be asked," he said.
McCarthy said minor political battles needed to be set aside because of the urgency of the virus, which has already spread from South America to parts of the United States.
"This is not a time for politics. This is a time to solve this. All they have to do is stop the filibuster," he said.
Party leaders on both sides in the Senate also opened debate on the floor Tuesday afternoon by attacking each other for not passing funding for Zika.
"From combatting the Zika virus to addressing an array of national security challenges, Americans like those I met with back home wanted to know what steps both parties are taking to help. For our friends across the aisle, it must have been a difficult conversation," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "That's because before the work period, Senate Democrats filibustered funding to combat Zika and to support veterans. Not once, but twice."
"It's hard to explain why, despite their own calls for funding, Senate Democrats decided to block a bill that would keep pregnant women and babies safer from Zika," he said. "Our colleagues across the aisle can point to a series of partisan excuses, but the bottom line is this: There is no good explanation for blocking these public health and national security funding bills."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid hit back at Republicans minutes later for adding in "strange, weird stuff" in a bipartisan bill addressing Zika funding that forced Democrats to block the measure.
"I'm still stunned that the Republican leader decided to have a seven-week vacation, and it was more important for him to do that than funding our nation's Zika response...First and foremost, the Senate needs to fund efforts to combat Zika," he said.
"Republicans were more interested in attacking Planned Parenthood and flying the confederate flag. Can't make that stuff up — that's really the truth — than protecting women and babies from this awful virus."
The Senate will vote on once again on a bill to fund response to Zika Tuesday evening, but it still includes language targeting Planned Parenthood's funding that previously killed the compromise measure.
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Paul McLeod is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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