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.”