WASHINGTON -- Democrats played the baby card Wednesday in their push to get Congress to pass robust funding to combat the impending Zika crisis, bringing mothers, babies and noted pregnancy author Heidi Murkoff to Capitol Hill to make the pitch.
With toddlers scrambling around the Lyndon Baines Johnson room just off the Senate floor, Murkoff, the author of What To Expect When You're Expecting, chided the legislative body for inaction in the face of an obvious threat.
"I just have to wonder why Congress is not acting promptly and fully to live up to that universal, sacred responsibility of protecting moms and babies, of putting moms and babies before politics," Murkoff said.
The Obama administration asked Congress for $1.9 billion in February to combat the mosquito-spread disease, which is linked to microcephaly in developing infants, as well as to other frightening ailments.
So far, the Senate has passed just $1.1 billion as part of a much larger spending bill for which there is no equivalent measure in the House of Representatives yet. The House has passed only $622 million in a standalone measure that is paid for by taking funds from the effort to combat Ebola.
Neither House nor Senate leaders have offered any way of resolving the differences as the Memorial Day vacation looms, despite pleas from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts, noted Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).
"We know it's coming to our country, and as the weather is getting warming, our nation's top medical experts say we must pass funding, on an emergency basis," Coons said.
"I find it extremely difficult to understand how we could just ignore the advice of the CDC and our best medical experts," Coons added. "Unfortunately though, that's what we're dealing with here in the Senate as we go into Memorial Day, which is the official start of summer and the mosquito season."
Chris Zahn, a doctor who is a vice president at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, warned that it was foolish to delay dealing with the Zika threat when it could cost some $10 million to treat each afflicted infant, according to CDC estimates.
"As we approach summer and the height of mosquito season, this is going to make a significant impact on us. We need to make responsible investments now," Zahn said, adding that there are estimates from the World Health Organization that there will be three to four million cases of Zika in the Western Hemisphere in the next year. There are already some 300 pregnant women infected with disease in the United States and its territories, primarily Puerto Rico.
Murkoff said she couldn't fathom why Congress would not act speedily.
"Family values should value families," she said in a dig at Republicans, especially those in the House who have passed only a third of the funding sought.
"We've all seen the photos from Brazil of moms clutching babies with tiny heads and irreversibly damaged brains, and they tug at our hearts. But imagine for a moment that that was you, or that was your wife, or your daughter or your sister in that tragic picture," Murkoff said. "Imagine that unspeakable pain, and now imagine not just one or two ... but imagine hundreds or thousands of moms and their babies suffering the same fate, the same devastating beginning, the same heartbreaking future, one that would almost certainly cost our economy exponentially more than full funding of a comprehensive bill would now."
Democrats at the event also argued that the $1.1 billion passed in last week's appropriations bill was not the starting point for negotiations, but the least that could be accepted.
"We can't go halfway, and underfund Zika," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). "Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan like to talk about how they get things done. Well, a big part of getting things done is having both chambers work together, not just simply say, 'Oh we did something,' when no result occurs. Unfortunately it's clear when it comes to House Republicans and Senate Republicans, the right hand doesn't know what the far-right hand is doing."