Why Combining Zika Money and Funding to Avoid a Shutdown Is Key to the Hill's Exit Strategy

The con­ver­gence of dead­lines for the two is­sues could be a some­what wel­come re­lief to lawmakers.

With gov­ern­ment fund­ing set to ex­pire at the end of Septem­ber and the ad­min­is­tra­tion warn­ing that money to fight the Zika vir­us will run out around the same time, Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic mem­bers in­creas­ingly be­lieve the two is­sues will be pack­aged and passed later this month.

All that’s left is fig­ur­ing out how to stretch one day of work over four weeks.

Though gov­ern­ing by crisis is ex­actly what con­gres­sion­al lead­ers prom­ised to avoid, the con­ver­gence of dead­lines for the two is­sues could be a some­what wel­come re­lief. House Re­pub­lic­ans lack the votes to pass a short-term con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion and Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans lack the votes to pass a $1.1 bil­lion Zika pack­age in its cur­rent form. But put the two to­geth­er, and mem­bers will be board­ing their planes home in no time.

“Sure, makes sense to me,” Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn told re­port­ers. “I don’t know who wants to be caught not hav­ing ac­ted when the first case of loc­ally trans­mit­ted Zika oc­curs in my state. I cer­tainly don’t.”

Still, the tac­tic does carry some risk for Re­pub­lic­ans. It es­sen­tially gives Demo­crats a stra­tegic ad­vant­age. The House Free­dom Caucus is push­ing a CR that would last un­til March, and if their 30-plus mem­bers with­hold votes from a short­er-term CR, Speak­er Paul Ry­an will have to rely on Demo­crat­ic votes to pass it.

House Demo­crat­ic Caucus Chair­man Xavi­er Be­cerra said that since Re­pub­lic­ans are fight­ing amongst them­selves over the length of a CR, if Demo­crats hang tough, they might be able to get full Zika fund­ing without any of the so­cial riders they have been de­cry­ing.

“It’s a col­li­sion course. Here we go again,” Be­cerra said. “Pos­sible shut­down of gov­ern­ment. Pos­sible fail­ure to fund Zika ef­forts. Where will we go? It’s prob­ably go­ing to be an­oth­er one of these pack­ages where we put everything to­geth­er in something that must be­come law.”

Though there have been in­creas­ing hints that Demo­crats would ac­cept $1.1 bil­lion in Zika fund­ing rather than the full $1.9 bil­lion the ad­min­is­tra­tion has asked for, they re­main op­posed to lan­guage in the bill they say would block the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment from grant­ing money to Planned Par­ent­hood or oth­er abor­tion and con­tra­cep­tion pro­viders. But ab­sent that pro­vi­sion, Demo­crats could claim vic­tory and head home for the elec­tions.

“If they wrap it in­to the CR with all the money that’s re­ques­ted, without pois­on pills, then we have to look at it,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, rank­ing mem­ber of the House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee. “We’ve made it very clear what we need.”

The be­ne­fit for Re­pub­lic­ans, of course, is avoid­ing a gov­ern­ment shut­down. A crisis like that un­der bicam­er­al Re­pub­lic­an con­trol roughly a month be­fore a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion could be a fatal blow to the GOP’s already-slim chances of win­ning the White House.

Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell on Wed­nes­day put the first chess piece in mo­tion to that end. He told re­port­ers that he has star­ted dis­cus­sions with Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and the White House about a CR that would run through Dec. 9.

“And,” he ad­ded, “we’re in dis­cus­sions about how to work out some of the dif­fer­ences that led to the Demo­crats fili­bus­ter­ing Zika fund­ing on mul­tiple oc­ca­sions. We’re look­ing for a way for­ward, and I’m hope­ful and op­tim­ist­ic that we’ll be able to do that.”

House Re­pub­lic­ans, for their part, will have a spe­cial con­fer­ence meet­ing Fri­day to dis­cuss their le­gis­lat­ive op­tions to keep the gov­ern­ment fun­ded. But it is no secret that lead­ers and ap­pro­pri­at­ors are, like Mc­Con­nell, push­ing a CR that would fund the gov­ern­ment through Decem­ber.

House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee Chair­man Har­old Ro­gers said that would give both cham­bers one last crack at passing their com­mit­tee-writ­ten bills be­fore the end of the 114th Con­gress.

“I’d like to see it go un­til middle Decem­ber to give us a chance to try to put to­geth­er some minibuses or even something I don’t like, and that’s an om­ni­bus,” he said. “But it makes a lot of sense to me, and I’m a little biased on this, that the bills that we’ve labored over so heav­ily this year—all 12 bills through the full com­mit­tee, six through the floor—I’d like to see those passed.”

Mem­bers of the Free­dom Caucus have said they will back a short-term CR if it in­cludes pro­vi­sions block­ing fund­ing to Planned Par­ent­hood or the in­flow of Syr­i­an refugees. Still, with time run­ning short, the chances are slim that Ry­an would enter in­to a Hail Mary stan­doff and re­pel Demo­crat­ic votes. The Free­dom Caucus, mean­while, has little lever­age since Ry­an can draw votes re­l­at­ively pain­lessly from the Demo­crat­ic vot­ing pool.

Still, if some Free­dom Caucus mem­bers peel off and sup­port a CR, it will likely be be­cause they feel sure that no ma­jor le­gis­la­tion, such as the Trans Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, will be taken up in the lame duck ses­sion.

But it’s more likely—as has been the case in short-term spend­ing bill after short-term spend­ing bill over the last few years—the meas­ure will pass on a bi­par­tis­an vote and be re­l­at­ively devoid of con­tro­ver­sial riders.

“We’re com­ing to the typ­ic­al kind of stale­mate which has be­come all too fa­mil­i­ar in di­vided gov­ern­ment,” Ry­an told a loc­al ra­dio sta­tion Tues­day in his ho­met­own of Janes­ville, Wis­con­sin. “It’s very frus­trat­ing.

“But nev­er­the­less, we’re go­ing to work through these is­sues, and I’m sure we’ll have a suc­cess­ful out­come to make sure just that the trains are run­ning on time while we ne­go­ti­ate in­di­vidu­al spend­ing bills throughout the fall.”

Alex Rogers and Ben Geman contributed to this article