After a seven-week recess, Congress returns Tuesday for a few weeks of last-minute governing before racing back home to run for re-election.
Before leaving for summer, the House of Representatives passed just five of the 12 appropriations bills needed to keep parts of the government open past Sept. 30. The Senate passed just three. None has been signed into law.
Hanging in the balance for the taxpayers: a rapidly approaching deadline to avert a shutdown of parts of the government financed by those appropriations, and a $1.1 billion Zika virus prevention bill that’s been held hostage by partisan fighting on Capitol Hill.
The most likely outcome is a short-term budget continuing resolution, called a CR, to keep government agencies such as the National Park Service open. But before that can happen, watch for partisan fights over guns, Iran and Planned Parenthood to threaten to derail any progress. And all those fault lines will be magnified by the fact that all 435 members of the House and a third of the Senate are looking for issues for their re-election campaigns, and racing to get home.
The goal of congressional elders plotting the rushed session, in the words of former top congressional Democratic aide James Manley: “Get these guys out of Washington and back on the campaign trail.”
One crucial item on the agenda: Zika.
A bitter, partisan, months-long impasse is holding up federal Zika money as cases of the mosquito-transmitted virus rise in Florida and other states.
Democrats and Republicans are sparring over provisions Republicans added at the last minute in a House-Senate negotiation. Democrats say they cannot support the bill as long as it contains the “poison pill” provisions, including making Planned Parenthood ineligible for new block grants in Puerto Rico, an area hard-hit by Zika.
As the number of U.S. Zika cases rises, Democrats and Republicans blame each other for the stalemate.
“The bill continues to be blocked by Senate Democrats through the use of a filibuster,” said David Popp, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “We would love for the president to convince his colleagues in the Senate to end that filibuster and pass the bill, but it doesn’t sound like he is prepared to do that. Apparently they believe an earmark for Planned Parenthood in the future is more important than preventing the threat of Zika now.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., blasted Senate Republican leaders for booking a lengthy recess “while Zika spread throughout Florida and other parts of the country.”
“Rather than going back to the failed partisan proposals that will never become law, Republicans should work with Democrats to get a bill to the president’s desk immediately,” said Schumer, who’s in line to succeed the retiring Harry Reid of Nevada as the Senate’s Democratic leader.
During Congress’ vacation, we have identified 43 cases of locally acquired Zika in four Florida counties.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott
Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott will travel to Washington on Tuesday to aggressively lobby for a solution. The Senate will try the same day to pry the stalled $1.1 billion Zika prevention measure loose. That vote is likely to fail.
Another flashpoint: Iran.
Republicans are crafting a bill to express displeasure with the Obama administration making a $400 million payment to Iran in January on the same day the country freed three American prisoners.
Republicans say it was a ransom deal. Administration officials contend that the sum was instead money owed to the Tehran government that had been delayed in order to “retain maximum leverage” to ensure that the prisoners would be freed that day.
“The administration’s actions put American lives in jeopardy,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “That’s why the committee is working on legislation that would prevent another ransom payment from happening.”
Yet another flashpoint: Guns.
House Democrats may continue their efforts to force votes on gun control legislation. While not necessarily a repeat of a sit-in staged earlier this year, they signal they will try something.
“We have the ability to really make it difficult in the House to adjourn without dealing with the issue and cause their members to spend time in Washington that they don’t want to spend,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
Ultimately, insiders expect Congress to again abandon the usual deliberative process of appropriating money and pass a massive, temporary spending plan.
The question is for how long? Many Democrats and Republicans prefer a short-term budget plan that would allow them to come back after the election but before the current Congress ends.
Conservative Republicans and allied outside groups are arguing for a long-term spending plan that would keep offices open until early next year, when a new Congress will be sworn in.
““It is unfair to the American people to allow unaccountable politicians to make consequential decisions in a lame-duck session,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Thirty-three conservative organizations echoed Holler’s call in a letter to Congress on Tuesday calling for a longer budget plan.
“History shows that end-of-year legislative packages are routinely rushed through Congress and to the president’s desk under the threat of a government shutdown – too fast for lawmakers and the taxpayers footing the bill to determine what is in them,” the letter reads.
Congress must provide government funding beyond a lame-duck session.
An open letter to Congress signed by 33 conservative groups
McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have talked about the temporary spending plan during the recess but no decisions have been made, according to Brendan Buck, a Ryan spokesman.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly described the Zika bill’s provision on Planned Parenthood. The measure would make Planned Parenthood ineligible for new block grant money in Puerto Rico. The story also wrongly said the bill contained language that would permit the Confederate flag to fly at federal cemeteries.