WASHINGTON – Lawmakers returning to Washington after a seven-week break picked up right where they left off — feuding about legislation to battle the mosquito-borne Zika virus and deadlocked over the defense budget.
A tightening presidential race and pitched warfare for control of the Senate this November promise to overshadow whatever Congress accomplishes in an election-shortened September session — which, for now, looks like little more than a temporary government-wide spending bill to prevent a shutdown at month's end, possibly linked to money to battle Zika.
In its first vote Tuesday, Senate Democrats for the third time blocked a $1.1 billion Zika funding package and an accompanying Veterans Administration spending bill over restrictions on Planned Parenthood. They then voted to prevent the Senate from turning to a $576 billion Pentagon spending measure.
"It's hard to explain why — despite their own calls for funding — Senate Democrats decided to block a bill that could help keep pregnant women and babies safer from Zika," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "It's also hard to explain why — despite the array of terror attacks we've seen across the world — Senate Democrats decided to block a bill that could help keep the American people safer from threats."
Democrats oppose the Zika measure as it bars Planned Parenthood clinics in Zika-suffering Puerto Rico from receiving new money to treat the disease and curb its spread. The legislation also would ease, over the objections of environmentalists, permitting requirements for pesticide spraying to kill the mosquitoes that can spread the virus.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Republicans had "loaded it up with poison pill riders to assuage the hard right."
Republicans added those provisions to the measure in June, along with spending cuts to help pay for the Zika bill, saying they are reasonable priorities that reflect their control of the House and Senate.
The Zika threat hasn't gripped the public as Ebola did two years ago, but pressure is building as dozens of mosquito-transmitted Zika cases have been confirmed in the political battleground state of Florida since lawmakers left Washington in July.
The defense bill, meanwhile, is caught in a furious battle sparked by a Republican move to use emergency war funds to try to artificially increase the basic Pentagon budget by $16 billion next year. The Obama administration and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are dead set against the idea, which breaks with a hard-won budget deal that's less than a year old; they say that if Republicans want more money for defense, domestic programs will have to receive an equal boost.
The defense battle won't be resolved until after Election Day, but Tuesday's vote on Zika should send the warring parties back to the drawing board, and it appears likely that the provision targeting Planned Parenthood — and perhaps the underlying $95 million worth of social services grants — will have to be dropped from the measure.
"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," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told hometown radio host Stan Milam of AM 1380 in Janesville on Tuesday.
On the Zika virus, which has spread over the summer and is linked to birth defects, Ryan said, "I do believe we'll find some kind of resolution."
For his part, Ryan has to navigate some tricky waters on the underlying stopgap spending bill, known in Washington-speak as a continuing resolution. Some conservatives want to block any post-election session and are pressing for a continuing resolution that keeps the government open until March or so. But President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats are dead set against the idea — they want a full-year spending agreement completed this year — and Ryan said he wants to keep negotiating on the full-year spending bills through the fall.
Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, said Tuesday that an extension of current spending "should be in my view be passed as soon as possible, it should go to sometime in December" and budget work should be finished by the end of the year.
As the inauguration of the next president looms in January, a multi-year restoration of the iconic Capitol Dome is nearing completion, and the Rotunda reopened for visitors on Tuesday, free of scaffolding and safety netting that prevented visitors from a full view of its artwork.
Politically, Republicans are pressing for additional investigations of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over her emails. House conservatives are determined to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, saying he stonewalled and impeded congressional investigations into IRS targeting of conservative organizations. Koskinen wasn't commissioner at the time.