Zika, IRS, avoiding government shutdown, all connected in Congress' final weeks

Everything’s tied together. All of it.

Quantum physicists sometimes speak of String Theory. It’s a framework which connects all particles via string-like bands that correspond with one another. String Theory’s cousin is the Theory of Everything. A key premise in the Theory of Everything is that it’s all connected. Everything.

Such is the case now on Capitol Hill. Astute congressional cosmologists can see how all items on the Capitol Hill docket are latched together via theoretical strings.

A spending bill to fund the government by the end of the month. Money to combat Zika. A possible rebuke of House Democrats for the gun sit-in in June. An effort by a cohort of House conservatives to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

It all culminates with the question about when Congress will ditch Washington again so lawmakers can campaign.

Like String Theory, it’s all bound together. One can explain the disposition of these legislative items in a Congressional Theory of Everything, which could play out over the coming days.

We begin as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, hustle to carve a spending package to fund the government past September 30, the end of the government’s fiscal year.

Lawmakers call such a measure a Continuing Resolution (CR). It’s designed to avoid a government shutdown, funding all government programs at their current levels.

Hanging around in Washington exposes vulnerable Senate Republicans to persistent questions from the pesky Capitol Hill press corps about Donald Trump.

That gives Senate Republicans incentive to move expeditiously. It’s possible the upper chamber could debate and vote on a spending plan by the end of next week.

Ironically, funding Zika efforts could emerge as one of the easier components of the entire package.

There’s long been chatter that lawmakers would attach funding in the CR to fight the mosquito-borne virus. When asked if the congressional leadership would Velcro Zika to the interim spending measure, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., replied “I think so.”

McConnell aims to write a CR that funds the government until December 9.

That date is an issue of contention among House conservatives. Many prefer a bill that runs through March, 2017. Conservatives loathe the idea of Congress working during a lame duck session following the November election.

There’s fear Congress could try to approve the stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact in the lame duck as a final hurrah for President Obama.

Some conservatives fear an even “worse” scenario: hooking TPP to whatever spending bill Congress must approve in December to avoid a government shutdown then.

House Republicans huddled early Friday to discuss paths to fund the government. A source familiar with the conversation says House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., talked about the merits and demerits of a long or short-term CR.

But if Congress approved an abbreviated bill, Ryan knew he had to get buy-in from conservatives worried about a lame duck. In previous weeks, McConnell put the kibosh on TPP for this year. However, Ryan left the TPP door slightly ajar.

He shut it Friday morning when he told rank-and-file Republicans it was too late for the White House to try to force a TPP vote in the lame duck.

Ryan and Rogers also threw conservatives another bone in the meeting.

They want to avoid crafting a gigantic “omnibus” spending bill that funds the entire government in December and runs through September 30, 2017 -- the end of the next federal fiscal year.

Ryan’s long tried to restore the power of the purse to Congress. Rogers argued in favor of Congress debating what he described as “bite-sized” spending bills to fund various parts of the federal government in the lame duck.

This still hasn’t won the support of the House Freedom Caucus, a band of conservatives that is sometimes at odds with leadership.

“Once people figure out what (the smaller bills are), they will hate it just as much,” predicted Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.

Conservatives point out that Ryan aimed to avoid larger, amalgamated catch-all bills. Granted, the “bite-sized” approach is an effort to diminish the size of the December bill. But it might not be enough for some Freedom Caucus members.

“It’s falling into the same pattern as the previous speaker,” Mulvaney said.

But surprisingly, Mulvaney might be OK with that. He says Ryan’s “attitude” is better about this sort of thing compared to that of his predecessor, former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., is one Freedom Caucus member who’s loathe to do anything in a lame duck session after the election.

“Lame ducks aren’t healthy ducks,” he said.

When Boehner ran the House, he periodically described onerous bills as a “crap sandwich.” Brat says conservatives find themselves now standing in line at a familiarly noxious legislative delicatessen.

“It’s called a crap sandwich now. It’ll be a crap sandwich with extra helpings,” he opined. “When Obama comes in with carrots and sticks, leaving office on a lame duck when he doesn’t have to negotiate any more, what’s going to get thrown into the kitchen sink at the end of the year?”

Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, is chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the largest bloc of conservatives in the House.

Flores is also skeptical of a lame duck and what House Republicans get in exchange for a CR that expires in early December.

“Is Harry Reid going to be less of a sand-in-the gears kind of person?” asked Flores, on the subject of negotiating another bill before Christmas compared to March.

Remember, Reid is retiring and won’t be in office next year.

“Nothing changes. Why in the world is December better?” asked Flores, who argued for what he called a “House Republican CR.”

The lack of a “House Republican CR” may be the issue as the Theory of Everything links the various parliamentary fibers.

The House doesn’t appear quite ready to counter any CR written by the Senate. That means the House could have to accept whatever the Senate sends across the Capitol Rotunda.

“That’s the likely outcome,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.

In fact, Dent suggests that in almost a twisted fashion, the House Republican brass may prefer for the Senate jam the House with its own CR to avoid a government shutdown.

“If the House fails to act, then we will get jammed by the Senate and we will eat whatever they send us,” Dent said. “I’d rather be doing the jamming than being jammed.”

During Boehner’s tenure, he often employed a “two-step” to adopt “must-pass” bills like Zika. There would first be a bill that would appeal to rank-and-file Republicans.

But it wouldn’t score traction with Senate Democrats or Obama. So Boehner then would craft or accept a second measure that the Senate and the president favored.

The House approved its version of the Zika plan in June. But Senate Democrats blocked the package due to Planned Parenthood provisions.

So Congress is working on Zika again. This is essentially the same two-step. The only difference is that Boehner’s covered perhaps a week. In this case, the Zika two-step is stretched out over four months. But it’s the same strategy.

This brings the Theory of Everything to the filaments of a GOP plan to address the Democrats’ sit-in over firearms. Democrats concede they broke rules. But they are practically begging Republicans to fire up some sort of castigation condemning the action or barring a future demonstration.

There was talk the House would consider the sit-in resolution this past week. But it never came to pass. Some Republicans fear addressing the issue now when Congress has so much on its plate. And like poking a sleeping bear, some GOP members worry sanctions could spark another Democratic sit-in.

That only brings more attention to the issue and allows Democrats to underscore that Republicans won’t consider firearms legislation just before an election.

This is not to say the House won’t consider a sit-in measure. But if things start to move quickly on a CR/Zika measure, Republicans could potentially dodge another standoff with Democrats over the nettlesome gun issue.

By the same token, this is why Rep. John Fleming, R-La., plans to give notice again Tuesday of his intent to impeach IRS chief John Koskinen.

The effort is known as a “privileged resolution.” As such, it carries elite parliamentary status and can bypass the wishes of House leaders. It also forces the House to deal with it by Thursday. House Republicans plan to meet that same day to discuss the Koskinen issue.

The House Republican leadership has little appetite for impeaching Koskinen. Still, Ryan indicated that his members would “vote the way they want to” on such a matter.

However, there’s an out. The GOP brass could sidestep impeachment, even if Fleming’s resolution ripens this week. Republicans could move to table or kill the resolution altogether. Or, there could be a motion on the floor to refer the resolution to the House Judiciary Committee.

The Judiciary Committee handles all impeachments. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., is skeptical of demands to impeach Koskinen. But when asked Friday, Goodlatte wouldn’t say if his position had changed.

As an olive branch to the House’s pro-impeachment crowd, the House leadership and Goodlatte conducted two hearings examining Koskinen earlier this year. But the committee never “marked up” or wrote an article of impeachment to send to the floor.

A referral to the Judiciary Committee of Fleming’s effort could short-circuit impeachment for the time being -- especially if the House moves soon to take up a Senate-approved CR/Zika measure. Fleming says that’s exactly why he wants to force the issue in the coming days.

“It’s getting late in the game now,” he said. “That’s the whole reason of having a privileged resolution.”

A House vote to bury the Koskinen impeachment resolution in committee means the issue is dead until the lame duck. And you know how many conservatives feel about a lame duck session.

That is unless conservatives are OK with the lame duck to grapple with issues they like (such as impeaching Koskinen) compared to issues they don’t like (such as a government funding bill).

String Theory connects all particles in the universe. The same is true this time of year on Capitol Hill. It’s all tied together. A Theory of Everything.