WASHINGTON — Florida lawmakers made their most coordinated effort yet to call for urgent action to combat the Zika virus, but even as they stressed bipartisanship, politics were on display Tuesday, overshadowing the possibility of a breakthrough on funding.
Less than a minute into a news conference demanding action, Republican Gov. Rick Scott lashed out at Sen. Bill Nelson for voting against a funding bill last week that Democrats say is an attack on Planned Parenthood.
"He turned the back on Floridians," asserted Scott, who could challenge the Democrat for re-election in 2018.
Pressed on why he was going after Nelson, Scott said the Florida Legislature sends him scores of bills each year and not all are exactly what he wants. "I have to decide on every bill, overall, 'Is that good for the citizens in my state or not?' "
Moments before, Scott looked into a bank of television cameras and said: "I'm here because the time for politics is over. The time for political debate has passed. The time now is to pass Zika funding."
The discord comes as frustrated Florida lawmakers attempted a more cohesive approach to the issue. Nelson and a gaggle of House members held a news conference Tuesday that played up bipartisanship. It focused on a stand-alone $1.1 billion bill spearheaded by Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Bonita Springs. A staunch fiscal conservative, Clawson said money was beside the point in a public health crisis.
"This is a big moment in the history of Florida," Clawson said, nearly choking up. "If I'm being urged to vote to spend big money overseas for bombs, by God I'm going to vote for financial bombs to go after a bad mosquito in order to save babies."
Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, a candidate for Senate, blasted rival Sen. Marco Rubio for not attending the news conference.
Rubio had been on the Senate floor placing blame on both parties while extolling an emerging deal that could resolve the fight. The plan, still coming together, would insert $1.1 billion in a short-term budget deal Congress must take up before it leaves for another extended recess before the November elections.
"On the one hand, I believe members of my own party have been slow to respond to this and there were these efforts, I believe, to try and cut corners on the funding, which will cost us money in the long term," Rubio said. "But on the other hand, you had Democrats inventing excuses, just making it up, in order to oppose it."
Nelson and other Democrats have voted against GOP-crafted bills because they say they contain policy riders that, among other things, would block Zika money from going to Planned Parenthood. The virus can be transmitted sexually, so Democrats say Republicans are putting ideology over public health. Republicans say Democrats are being intransigent, though Rubio and other Florida members have joined calls for a bill devoid of extras.
That fight has been ongoing for weeks and Scott revived it Tuesday, the first of a two-day lobbying effort on Capitol Hill. He spoke at a news conference after a private meeting with Rubio. Scott did not attempt to meet with Nelson.
Scott, who pointed out that he first traveled to Washington in May to ask for Zika funding, also met Tuesday with House Speaker Paul Ryan. Today he is to sit down with Florida lawmakers and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who signaled Monday that a budget framework could emerge later this week.
The action comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says federal money has dried up to fight Zika. The agency director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, said Friday that the country is "about to see a bunch of kids born with microcephaly," referring to the devastating birth defect.
The political jab was a bold move for Scott, who has fought over the years with the Obama administration and taken shots at Nelson on various issues. Noting there are nearly 800 Zika cases in Florida, including 86 involving pregnant women, Scott said Nelson "had a bill that he could have voted for and voted against it."
Said Nelson: "Just as we're about to reach a deal to pass a clean emergency Zika funding bill, the governor chooses to fly up here and stir things up politically. He should know better. This is a serious situation, not a time for partisan politics."
Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, fretted that Florida could begin to suffer economically.
"We should have acted sooner; we should have acted immediately," he said. "Now we have a second threat, the economic threat, the sense that people are not going to want to come to our beautiful state."
Contact Alex Leary at email@example.com. Follow @learyreports.