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Editorial: Stop the games, Congress, and fight Zika

In this Jan. 27, 2016 file photo, an Aedes aegypti mosquito known to carry the Zika virus, is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. The U.N. health agency is changing its advice to travelers returning from areas facing a Zika virus outbreak, saying both men and women should now practice safe sex or abstinence for six months. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)

The news about the Zika virus keeps getting worse.

More Florida cases were announced Tuesday. A new study suggested Zika could be transmitted through tears, as well as by mosquitoes and sex. The World Health Organization issued more stringent guidelines on how long people returning from Zika-affected areas should avoid sex. Evidence from Brazil indicates even babies who appear normal at birth can develop Zika-related symptoms months later. On Tuesday, even remote Malaysia reported its first case of a Zika-infected pregnant woman.

So what is Congress doing?

Nothing.

Again.

EDITORIAL

That’s unconscionable. Zika, which is spreading into the United States from South America, is a terrifying disease. Infected babies can be born with birth defects, including microcephaly, in which the brain doesn’t develop normally, leaving babies with a shrunken heads. In adults, Zika has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause paralysis. People planning to have children are frightened at the thought of just one mosquito bite.

With so much at stake, you’d expect Congress to be pulling out all stops to prevent the scourge from worsening. But you’d be wrong.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate’s first vote since returning from its longest recess in 60 years was used to block a Republican bill that would have provided money to fight Zika but also would have kept money from going to Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico.

Pairing crucial Zika funding with yet another ideological attack on Planned Parenthood might be seen as yet another case of politics as usual, when each side maneuvers for gain. There’s no shortage of that on Capitol Hill these days.

But Congress should be above that when a genuine emergency comes along.

Earlier this year, President Obama called on Congress to allocate $1.9 billion in emergency funding to fight the invasion of Zika, which is spread by mosquitoes and sex. In May, the Senate voted 89-8 to put $1.1 billion into the effort.

But things fell apart in the House. Republicans added what Democrats called “poison pills” — measures that Democrats would not support, such as the cut to Planned Parenthood funding, funding shifts away from Obamacare and a scaling back of restrictions on pesticides. The House bill failed when it went back to the Senate, where the vote on Tuesday was 52-46, short of the 60 votes that were required.

Congress does not have time for political games. Zika-infected mosquitoes have arrived in Florida, where more than 50 people have been infected in the last month. Around the nation, the number of cases has topped 2,700, with infections in every state. Zika has been linked to at least 16 cases of microcephaly in the continental United States. Even Florida’s Republican governor has said the need for Zika funding is urgent.

Republicans are blaming the Democrats for blocking the Zika funding. But Democrats have added no “poison pills” of their own to the bill.

The Centers for Disease Control has shifted millions of dollars from other areas — including Ebola and cancer research — for its public health response to Zika. But CDC director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden said the agency will run out of money month for Zika efforts unless Congress steps up to the plate. Is this really the best one of the world’s richest nations can do when it’s confronted by a public health threat?

Although most of the U.S. is at minimal risk for Zika, it is a terrifying disease — and it’s moving in. So why has Congress yet to allocate its first dollar to stop it?

Congress will be in session for the next three weeks before everyone heads home for the final campaign push before Election Day. Lawmakers should summon up a much-needed sense of urgency and get Zika funding passed before they go.