Congress' September ritual: keep government open, with Zika, elections now in mix

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“Summer has come and passed.
The innocent can never last.
Wake me up when September ends.” -- Wake Me Up When September Ends, Green Day

It’s as constant as chlorophyll draining from the leaves every September, flipping green pigments to rich browns, reds and golds.

Perpetual as the crash of football pads every September Saturday on college campuses, intermittently pierced by the shrill tweet of a referee’s whistle.

It’s as regular as the hordes of children, weighted down by North Face and Pokémon backpacks, dashing for the bus as school resumes in September.

Every September is about the same, punctuated by rituals signaling shifts from summer to fall.

September commands particular customs on Capitol Hill, too. Lawmakers must fund the federal government by the end of the federal fiscal year. That deadline is always September 30.

Over the past two-plus decades, September almost always sparks a flurry of negotiations between top Congressional leaders and the White House in an attempt to approve some sort of interim spending bill (known in congressional parlance as a Continuing Resolution, often abbreviated simply as a “CR”) and avoid a government shutdown.

A CR is a stopgap spending package that funds the government at current levels for a short period – until Congress must OK another package to re-up funding again.

While there is often chatter about the possibility of a government shutdown in September, the prospects of an actual shutdown are rare. Still in August, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, invoked the specter of a shutdown in a conference call with reporters.

It probably doesn’t help matters that the government actually did shutter for more than two weeks just three years ago. So the possibility remains ripe in the minds of political observers.

In September, some other nagging but crucial policy issues usually come to the fore as well.

It’s funding to combat Zika this year.

Inevitably, Congress will marry the Zika money to the CR. Officials from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Republican, canvassed Capitol Hill in recent weeks to make the case for Zika aid as the federal fiscal year draws to a close.

But everyone stares at the calendar. September 30. Nothing has to happen in Congress until that deadline. And so, things are playing out the way they usually do in September in Washington.

The Senate assumed the lead in writing this year’s CR. There was a theory this week that the chamber could potentially knock the bill out and perhaps vote late on Thursday night. Senators would then skip town completely until after the election. It didn’t happen.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made clear he wants vulnerable GOP senators facing challenging contests to get home to campaign. Republican prospects of potentially holding control of the Senate improved dramatically of late. That only underscores McConnell’s desire to cut everyone loose soon.

Yet, things on the CR are crawling.

“Planned Parenthood is not gone,” Reid declared mid-week.

Yes. Planned Parenthood.

“Planned Parenthood” is a provision GOP lawmakers demanded leaders include in a Zika-related bill the House adopted in June. Senate Democrats view this provision as a “poison pill” that they can’t swallow. So they filibustered the same measure in July and in September.

Ironically, the verbiage is silent when it comes to Planned Parenthood.

One issue at stake is whether Profamilias, Puerto Rico’s version of Planned Parenthood, can receive money targeted to combat Zika.

The so-called “Planned Parenthood” language reads like this: “That of the funds appropriated under this heading, $95,000,000 shall be transferred to the ‘Social Services Block Grant’ for health services provided by public health departments, hospitals, or reimbursed through public health plans, notwithstanding section 2005(a)(4) of the Social Security Act, in States, territories, or tribal lands with active or local transmission cases of the Zika virus.”

In short, that means that Profamilias cannot receive federal assistance. This seems to have stymied talks on Zika.

“Zika is a tough nut to crack,” said one source.

Another source noted to Fox News that “it’s hard to get to common ground (on Planned Parenthood) when there isn’t a lot of common ground on that issue to begin with.”

So efforts to advance the CR with Zika money slowed this week.

“Things came to a stand-still today,” said one senior congressional aide close to the process on Wednesday.

One can distill the entire CR battle into a singular, prescient comment offered by one senior source close to the process.

“It’s only September 14th,” the source said.

That’s the whole story. There are two more weeks left in September. And in September, this is just how Congress rolls.

This infuriates many conservatives -- especially some who thought things might be better under the guidance of House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Many award the Wisconsin Republican kudos for a better process and more input. But still, the outcome is virtually the same. A big, catch-all spending bill to avoid a government shutdown in late-September coupled with another package in mid-December.

This is why many conservatives pushed to have everything wrapped up this month in hopes of sidestepping a second bill before Christmas.

“If what we're going to do in December is so great, let's do it today and take credit for it in November,” said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.

The House GOP leadership is trying to gin up support for the September CR, and some form of a December package by securing buy-in to do miniature spending bills in the lame duck session. The smaller bills could curb the scope of the December bill. But lawmakers have to deal with September first.

“It takes a while to do these things,” lamented Ryan when asked about the pace of assembling the CR. “I wouldn’t say it’s bogged down. It’s just taking a little longer.”

One reporter asked the speaker if the House shouldn’t have ceded authority to the Senate to author the CR.

“It's always a mistake to let the Senate go first,” replied Ryan with a smile, drawing laughter.

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had a different take on the same question.

“The reason it's beginning in the Senate is that the speaker can't pass a bill which originates in the House,” she said.

That said, if things continue to drag on in the Senate, Ryan didn’t rule out the House moving its own version of a CR first.

“We would like to get it done,” Ryan said.

If that’s the case, would the House GOP write a bill which appeals to only Republicans? That wouldn’t make it through the Senate to say nothing of getting past President Obama.

Or would Republicans try to advance something palatable to all. The latter plan -- which would actually keep the government operating -- would require Democratic support on the floors of both bodies.

“We have to have some input if they're going to get Democratic votes,” Pelosi said.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., heads the Senate panel in charge of health and Zika money. He’s also facing an increasingly competitive re-election fight against Democrat Jason Kander back home.

The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call race rating just switched the Blunt/Kander contest from “Republican Favored” to “Leans Republican.”

But Blunt’s involved in the CR talks, despite the contest.

“I’m glad to do my job,” he said. “There are a lot of things behind the problem which are making it more difficult to solve the problem. Like keeping us here.”

After all, it is September. And lawmakers are performing a familiar dance.

“It’s always a lot like this,” Blunt said.

This is why you might find some lawmakers humming a few bars of Green Day over the next few weeks. They know what’s ahead. Just wake them up when September ends.