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Zika funding becomes political weapon in Florida's U.S. Senate race

Sen. Marco Rubio heads to the Senate floor for a vote, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Tuesday. As Congress returned from a seven-week recess on Tuesday, Senate Democrats again stymied a $1.1 billion plan to fight the Zika virus, demanding that Republicans drop an effort to block Planned Parenthood from receiving money to combat the mosquito-borne disease. [Gabriella Demczuk | The New York Times]
Published Sep. 8, 2016

For the third time in three months, Congress — as expected — refused to commit a promised $1.1 billion in emergency funding to fight the growing public health crisis of Zika.

Now, that paralysis is threatening to overtake Florida's U.S. Senate race, with both Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and his Democratic challenger, Rep. Patrick Murphy, blaming the other for the impasse.

In Zika politics, where live mosquitoes can make a great prop, there are more points to be scored by blaming each other for failure than actually passing what should be an easy bill, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"It's all so they can blame the other side for not doing the job," Sabato said.

Hours before the Senate failed to approve the funding Tuesday, Rubio's campaign slammed Murphy — who has been in the House since 2012 — because he voted against the same bill three months ago.

"Patrick Murphy is the only candidate to have voted against every measure to fund Zika — once again putting himself and his political aspirations before Floridians," said Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokeswoman for Rubio's campaign.

Left out of the attack is that Democrats objected to the Republican-crafted Zika bill because it cut money to Planned Parenthood — a provision both sides knew would doom the Senate legislation because Democrats have enough votes to block bills.

Moments after the bill failed in the Senate, Murphy released his own comment blasting Rubio for trying to exploit the Zika crisis and not doing more to push Republican leaders to strip the Planned Parenthood language out of the legislation.

"Even more egregious is that as Zika spreads in Florida, Marco Rubio continues to stand with Republican leaders instead of Floridians facing this crisis," Murphy said.

That attack left out that Rubio supported a Zika funding bill earlier this year with Florida's Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, that would have set aside $1.9 billion of emergency spending without the Planned Parenthood cuts. Rubio backed another version that would have put $1.1 billion toward Zika without the other provisions.

Nelson on Tuesday refused to blame Rubio for the Zika funding problems, undercutting Murphy's message.

"Remember, (Rubio) voted for the $1.9 billion, he was my co-sponsor, and he voted for the $1.1 billion with no riders," Nelson told reporters. "The person that hasn't delivered a Zika funding bill is Mitch McConnell."

He said the Senator majority leader should pressure the House Republicans to drop their insistence on the unrelated measures in the Zika emergency legislation.

"Let's stop this monkey business," Nelson said in a speech on the Senate floor. "Let's stop these political games."

Other Floridians in Congress are similarly frustrated.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Belleair Bluffs, in a piece of inspired political stagecraft, carried a clear container holding 100 Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to the House floor Wednesday and questioned what the reaction would be if he released them in the chamber.

"This is the fear of Floridians, right here," Jolly said. "The politics of Zika are garbage."

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, spoke minutes before him and decried political "paralysis." She called for a vote on the original $1.9 billion spending package without policy riders.

Those riders are at the heart of the stalemate. Nelson told reporters that he voted against Tuesday's Zika bill because it included the cuts to Planned Parenthood and another would allow Confederate flags to be displayed at federal cemeteries.

While most Americans would seemingly want to see a Zika bill pass, Sabato said party leaders see an opportunity to fire up core activists by injecting abortion politics into the debate. He said in an election year, party leaders are scratching to find issues to help turn out voters, and, as usual, abortion accomplishes that.

Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report.

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