- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Capitol Hill returned to its gridlocked ways without missing a beat Tuesday, as Senate Democrats renewed their filibuster of Zika-fighting money, and it became clear a seven-week summer vacation did nothing to cut through the paralysis in Congress.

Minutes after blocking the $1.1 billion in Zika funding, blaming GOP poison pills, Senate Democrats also blocked action on the annual defense spending bill, sending Washington careening toward another shutdown showdown at the end of this month.

Democrats insist the government must tack on billions more for President Obama’s priorities, while Republicans say any new programs above the 2017 budget level need to be paid for with cuts elsewhere. Both sides are also fighting over how long a spending bill should last — Democrats want to revisit the battle again in December, while Republicans want to push it into March.

Add to that other standoffs over Mr. Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and Democrats’ demand to tackle gun control, and the battle lines are drawn.

“We’re coming to the typical kind of stalemate, which has become all too familiar in divided government. It’s very frustrating,” House GOP Speaker Paul D. Ryan told WBEL-AM in Wisconsin. “But nevertheless, we’re going to work through these issues, and we will have a successful outcome to make sure just that, you know, the trains are running on time while we negotiate individual spending bills throughout the fall.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat pushing many of the fights, said he’ll take steps to gum up Senate business, preventing committees from meeting beyond noon each day, until the GOP schedules a hearing on Judge Merrick Garland, Mr. Obama’s nominee to the high court.

“If the Republican leader thinks there is a committee that needs to meet because of extraordinary circumstances, I would be pleased to consider his request. But in the meantime, as of today, I’m objecting to committees meeting in line with the rules of the Senate,” he declared on the chamber floor Tuesday.

The most pressing fights are on spending, with current funding for basic government operations scheduled to expire when fiscal year 2016 ends on Sept. 30.

Tuesday’s two filibusters blocked funding on the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments, with both falling at least five votes short of the 60 needed to break the filibuster. Sen. Joe Donnelly, Indiana Democrat, bucked his party and voted to advance each bill, and Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, joined him on the defense-spending bill.

Two Republicans, Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Mike Lee of Utah, voted to block the Zika package.

Democrats and Republicans had begun the year vowing to brush aside election-year chaos and use “regular order” to fund the government by passing all 12 annual appropriations bills ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline.

Yet the process hit roadblocks early on. Republicans failed to pass a budget amid intraparty turmoil over spending levels, and Democrats blocked the defense bill over concerns that GOP leaders would use budget gimmicks to boost military spending, yet get stingy when it brought the rest of the bills funding domestic needs to the floor.

As a result, Congress will be forced to pass a stopgap bill that extends 2016 spending levels beyond Oct. 1, though factions can’t even agree on how long the so-called continuing resolution should last.

Mr. Reid and House Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, are pushing for a three-month bill, though some in the GOP want to kick the fight into the next year, allowing the next president and Congress to settle it.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said the GOP conference will discuss the way forward this week. He still wants to finish the regular appropriations bills, even if it takes until December.

“Unfortunately, there were some within the [GOP] conference that wouldn’t let us start in the time period that we want to start, so we see ourselves in a different position,” Mr. McCarthy said.

While the action remained blocked on Capitol Hill, the Florida Department of Health said Tuesday it has discovered seven more cases of mosquito-borne Zika, including six in Miami Beach, bringing the state total to 56.

The rising tally is unnerving Republicans in Florida — once again a critical swing state in the 2016 election — who want to take up President Obama’s initial $1.9 billion request for new Zika spending or amend the GOP’s existing offer, which is partially paid for with $750 million from the Ebola fight, Obamacare and other accounts.

Mr. Ryan said he expected a way forward on Zika “by the end of this month,” even as GOP leaders called on Democrats to stop “playing politics” with the package.

In turn, Mr. Reid blamed the GOP for letting the summer recess proceed as planned, arguing Congress’ seven-week absence had taken its toll.

“As Republicans stalled, Zika spread quickly,” he said.

The Obama administration says something better be done, because it will run out of funding it diverted from other priorities to Zika within weeks. One option is to roll the Zika funding into the short-term spending bill designed to keep the government’s lights on.

Mr. Hoyer said that could work, so long as Republicans exclude “poison pill” provisions that Democrats and the White House cannot accept.
“They could go as one document,” he said.

But Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said GOP lawmakers want to make sure any stopgap bill doesn’t break the $1.070 trillion discretionary spending limit agreed to by Congress for 2017. That means any additional money for Zika, for the lead-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, or for anti-opioid efforts would have to be offset elsewhere.

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