WASHINGTON – The end of the fiscal year is approaching like a runaway freight train and once again Congress has lost control, stalling until the last minute to pass a stopgap spending package to keep the government’s doors open for a few weeks before it can – hopefully – piece together a spending plan for 2017 that’s amenable to both sides.
This marks the eighth year in a row that Congress has proved unable to adopt a funding plan by the traditional Oct. 1 deadline despite vows from the Republican leadership to restore “regular order” to the budgetary process and get the job done well within the time constraints. Instead, the House didn’t even bother to pass a budget bill setting parameters by April 15. Neither chamber passed any of the 12 appropriations measures this year, laying the groundwork for another continuing resolution (CR), a stopgap measure to keep the doors open.
And even that seems in danger, given the Senate’s inability thus far to agree on what items should be included in the CR. On Tuesday, with minority Democrats expressing disapproval, the upper chamber twice failed to approve a cloture motion, which would have ended debate and allowed lawmakers to proceed to a vote.
Should the Senate manage to finally forge an agreement and send the package to the House before the Oct. 1 deadline, it remains unclear whether the lower chamber will go along. Conservative Republicans, many of whom belong to what is called the Freedom Caucus, may draw the line and oppose the temporary spending plan if it isn’t to their liking, forcing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to seek Democratic support – a move that could prove unpopular with his Republican colleagues.
Then there is President Obama, who has hinted he may not sign the stopgap if Congress fails to provide provisions he finds necessary.
Josh Earnest, the president’s press secretary, said at this stage he’s reluctant to predict the ultimate outcome in Congress.
“It seems like at least every year of the Obama presidency, we’ve spent some portion of the last week in September worrying whether or not Congress was going to do its job and get its act together and ensure that the government would be funded and not shut down,” Ernest said. “Unfortunately, Republicans who promised to get Congress moving again if they were handed the reins of the Congress have broken that promise and they have failed. And we, once again, here are four days before the deadline, and we’re publicly wondering if Congress is going to fulfill their most basic responsibility, and that is are they going to succeed in passing a budget to keep the government open.”
Ernest said the problem is the GOP’s reliance on party-line votes, ignoring the concerns of minority Democrats, who are holding up a vote on the CR this go-round.
“And that just doesn’t work,” Earnest said. “And I think it accounts for so many of their failures over the course of the last several years. They’re going to have to work with Democrats in both the House and the Senate, it appears, to pass this budget. So they better get to work.”
Senate Democrats claim they’re willing to support a CR but not the one proposed and being pushed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. That proposal offers a 10-week continuation budget and provisions to fund research into the Zika virus and money for Louisiana flood victims but it fails to include help for residents of Flint, Mich., who are suffering from the effects of lead-contaminated water.
“Democrats are ready to pass a CR, but that CR should do four things,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, in a floor speech. “First, it should keep the government open through Dec. 9, giving Congress time to complete the appropriations process. Second, it should respond to urgent needs by including funding to address the Zika virus, floods in Louisiana and other states, and the Flint water crisis.”
“Third, it should be free of poison-pill riders, like the rider preventing the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring companies to tell investors where their political contributions are going,” Mikulski continued. “Fourth, it should provide full-year funding for veterans and military construction, including an increase of $3.5 billion for veterans’ medical care.”
The McConnell CR offers $1.1 billion for Zika research, funds for military construction and $176.9 billion in total funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, $14.2 billion more than in 2016. Out of that, $74.4 billion is discretionary funding, 4 percent more than 2016, while $260 million is earmarked for continued modernization of VA’s electronic health record system.
So now the biggest sticking point appears to be regarding Flint water.
The Flint water crisis started in April 2014 after the city switched from water treated at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, sourced from Lake Huron and the Detroit River, to water from the Flint River. That drinking water had a series of problems, the biggest being the detection of lead contamination as a result of the corrosion of old pipes.
Both sides have expressed a desire to address the issue but they want to do so in different ways. Democrats want the money included in the CR. Republicans prefer addressing the issue in the still-pending Water Resources Development Act.
“Can it really be that Democratic leaders have embraced dysfunction so thoroughly that they’d tank a noncontroversial, 10-week funding bill over – well, what exactly?” McConnell asked. “Does anyone know? Do they even know? The rationale seems to change by the hour.”
McConnell noted that Democrats have already agreed to spending levels, a compromise Zika package and assistance for veterans and those hurt by the Louisiana floods and some funding to address the heroin and prescription opioid crisis facing some parts of the nation.
The Senate, McConnell said, has voted to pass assistance for families affected by lead poisoning in Flint in the Water Resources Development Act. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has pledged to pursue resources for Flint once the bill goes to conference with the House.
“It’s almost as if a few Democratic leaders decided long ago that bringing our country to the brink would make for good election-year politics, and then they’ve just made up the rationale as they go,” McConnell said.
But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, said the CR “ignores a two and a half year crisis in Flint, Michigan. Lead has poisoned 100,000 people, almost 10,000 children, some of whom are babies.”
Reid asserted that House approval of the Water Resources Development Act and the money for Flint is far from a sure thing, making it important to include the provision in the CR.
“This doesn’t need to be a manufactured crisis,” Reid said. “We know the Republicans know how to close the Senate. They did it for 17 days. And they’ve done it another time. We don’t need to have a manufactured crisis. We want to make sure that Flint has some degree of certainty; after two and a half years, they’re going to get some help. We need to work together to keep our government properly funded and the people of Flint protected. Certainly we should be able to do that.”
Reid reiterated that Democrats disapprove of a GOP rider that would effectively prohibit the Securities and Exchange Commission from requiring corporations to disclose campaign contributions, thus keeping the information from shareholders.