The Fiscal Times – Congress returned from a seven-week vacation on Tuesday and found itself pretty much in the same outrageous spending deadlock it left behind in mid-July.
For the third time this summer, Senate Republicans and Democrats failed to agree on new $1.1 billion in funding to combat the spread of the dreaded Zika virus – a mosquito-borne and sexually transmittable disease that can cause serious birth defects if contracted by pregnant women.
In all 50 US States, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 35 cases have been locally acquired, while 2,686 people acquired Zika while traveling outside the country. Zika in US Territories (American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands) includes 14,059 locally acquired cases and 51 travel-associated cases.
Lawmakers departed Washington in mid-July unable to resolve a dispute over a number of controversial GOP amendments to the funding bill, including one to deny federal funding to a Planned Parenthood program in Puerto Rico and another to curb Obama administration clean water regulations.
Instead of having worked out a deal behind the scenes during the extraordinarily lengthy summer recess, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada returned to work yesterday afternoon and immediately began blaming one another again for putting the health of Americans at risk.
“It’s outrageous,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, “especially considering that some of the issues around Zika are direr than they were before…. You figure that at this time you should be trying to figure out a way forward, rather than to say, ‘Our last offer is our best offer.’”
The Senate voted yesterday 52 to 46 to cut off the Democratic filibuster and move ahead with a House-passed conference report to provide added funding for combatting the spread of Zika by researching a vaccine to prevent the disease. But Republicans fell eight votes shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to end the Democrats’ filibuster, and so the impasse remains.
There is little doubt that Congress will eventually approve more spending for Zika seven months after President Obama first submitted a request closer to $1.9 billion. Lawmakers have no choice but to complete work on legislation before departing again for another four weeks of campaigning before the Nov. 8 election.
If Republicans and Democrats are willing to risk the wrath of voters to score political points on Zika funding, then they might be willing to risk another government shutdown to have their way on a continuing resolution (CR) to provide operating funds to start the new fiscal year October 1. The last time Congress forced a government shutdown was in October 2013 when negotiations over major spending bills for the coming fiscal year collapsed.
The stakes couldn’t be higher this fall, as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton battle to succeed President Obama while the Democrats seek to regain control of the Senate and cut deeply into GOP control of the House. Both parties are aggressively seeking ways to enhance their prospects, and one of the most obvious strategies is tacking policy positions on major appropriations legislation.
“Obviously what happens at the beginning of September could be very different from what happens at the end of September,” said Stan Collender, a Washington budget expert. “But whether it’s Zika or [Vice President Joe Biden’s] ‘moon shot’ cancer research funding or a defense spending cap, it shows that electoral politics have already taken over the budget process for this.”
“So the decisions that are yet to be made on the CR are going to be as much about the election as they are about funding,” he added. “And it’s one of the reasons that you cannot dismiss the possibility that there is no compromise and that we get at least a short-term shutdown.”
As in years past, the House and Senate are far behind in approving the dozen annual appropriations bills essential to operating the government. In fact, while each chamber as approved a handful of spending bills, the House and Senate have yet to agree on a compromise version of a single spending bill. With the deadline for action once again looming, lawmakers are sharply divided on how to proceed.
Should they approve a stop-gap spending bill to get past the election and then complete their work in a lame-duck session before the end of the year? Many Democrats and some Republicans are for that approach. Or should they push the temporary spending authority well into 2017 to allow a new Congress and a new president make the final funding decisions?
Many of the 40 members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus favor that second approach, insisting that it would prevent Democrats and more moderate Republican appropriators from pressing for extra spending and concessions to special interest groups just ahead of the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.