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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Congress should approve Zika funding

A tentative deal that finally would provide federal funding to fight the Zika virus offers a glimmer of hope — and sanity — that leaders in Washington will put words into action to combat this spreading public health threat. Congressional leaders are expected to include money for Zika in a broad spending bill that could be considered by the Senate as early as today. That approach has bipartisan support from Florida's congressional delegation and approval is of paramount importance for Florida, where Zika has infected nearly 800 residents and continues to spread.

Zika, which is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, can cause microcephaly and other grave birth defects in babies born to infected mothers. As the virus appeared across Central and South America earlier this year, President Barack Obama requested $1.9 billion to contain the outbreak. The request should have been easy to pass, but Congress never misses a chance to inject partisanship into governing. House Republicans attached provisions to the funding bill that were deal breakers for Democrats — namely cutting off money to Planned Parenthood. Both of Florida's senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, have rightly supported efforts to pass a clean bill that gets the money flowing.

The deal now on the table includes $1.1 billion for Zika in a short-term spending bill that keeps the federal government running into December. It's considered "must-pass" legislation, because without it federal agencies would have to shut down. Congress won't let that happen so close to the election. Voters should remember that this 11th-hour effort did not materialize because leaders in Washington decided to do the right thing and address this crisis. They just want to get out of Washington and back on the campaign trail.

In addition to money, the Zika fight needs more transparency. While Gov. Rick Scott has made himself plenty visible — joining local government roundtables, urging Floridians to use insect repellent and lobbying in Washington — the state Department of Health has been opaque about the real numbers behind cases of locally transmitted Zika. The Miami Herald reported that state health officials stopped providing detailed information on local Zika transmissions, such as the number of people tested in each county and the results. They underreported Florida's total of locally transmitted Zika infections by excluding out-of-state residents from the count, and they won't say how many local cases involve pregnant women. The one non-travel-related case of Zika in Tampa Bay affected a Pinellas resident who is a firefighter for Tampa Fire Rescue, but state Surgeon General Celeste Philip would not specify where in the county that patient lives until health officials confirmed whether the virus was spreading locally. That was more than two weeks ago, and there has been no update. Floridians need timely, complete information about this health threat.

Scott traveled to Washington this week to lobby for money, acting above the fray a la former Gov. Jeb Bush in a hurricane and preaching that "the time for politics is over." Then he singled out Nelson for voting against earlier Zika bills that cut money to Planned Parenthood. The governor's self-serving tour isn't helping Floridians, and his shot at the Democrat he may run against in 2018 was unnecessary. He should come home and get back to handing out bug spray.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Thomas Frieden warned last week that the United States is "about to see a bunch of kids born with microcephaly." Days later, Congress failed for the third time in three months to commit emergency funding. The deal in the works now will not make up for months of lawmakers' willful inaction, but it will provide the crucial ingredient for fighting Zika: money. Lawmakers must get it done.

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