WASHINGTON — Congress exited a sweltering Washington on Thursday, its dysfunction on full display as it left behind must-do legislation to combat the mosquito-borne Zika virus and a stalemate over lawmakers’ basic job of fulfilling agency budgets.
The twin failures highlighted the one step forward, two steps back nature of the bitterly-divided Congress, even as Senate Majority Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan trumpeted victories on drug abuse legislation and other, more modest bills. But a continuing impasse over the Pentagon budget sent McConnell’s effort to revive the process for advancing annual spending bills off the rails.
When lawmakers return from their vacation after Labor Day, a stopgap funding bill that’s needed to prevent a government shutdown will be the main order of business before Congress recesses again for the fall campaign.
Calls by Democrats for modest curbs on guns sales went unheeded as lawmakers embarked on a seven-week vacation extended by the national political conventions this month. Democratic nominee-to-be Hillary Clinton paid a visit to Senate Democrats amid new polls showing a tightening race against Donald Trump.
As the last act before lawmakers sped away from the Capitol, Senate Democrats again blocked a $1.1 billion take-it-or-leave-it Zika measure drafted by Republicans controlling Congress, protesting a provision that would block Planned Parenthood clinics in Puerto Rico from receiving money to fight the virus, which can cause severe birth defects and can be transmitted by mosquitoes native to much of the country.
“Republicans chose to put their ideological battle against Planned Parenthood ahead of their responsibilities as legislators to help fight Zika,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. The administration still has considerable Zika funding at its disposal but inaction on the Zika issue this summer may lead to delays in developing a vaccine and advanced mosquito-fighting techniques.
Earlier, McConnell, R-Ky., again tried to call up a $575 billion Pentagon funding bill but was blocked by Democrats who fear that Republicans will use the measure to boost the defense budget while keeping domestic programs frozen — and in the process unravel last year’s hard-fought budget deal, which reversed curbs on both Pentagon and domestic accounts.
Republicans howled in outrage at the twin Democratic filibusters.
“Our service members are at war. They are in combat. And their combat boots are on the ground,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “I think our colleagues across the aisle have forgotten that.”
Democrats fired back at a news conference in which they blasted Republicans for failures on gun safety legislation, Zika, reform of the justice system, and emergency funding to confront the nation’s opioid epidemic.
“This is going to be a long, hot summer for people who aren’t going to be able to take nice long vacations, people who are in our streets fearing for our children, people wondering why Congress has failed,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Democrats were particularly upset over guns in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, recent deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, and the killing of five officers in Dallas last week. Senate Republicans last month blocked an attempt by Democrats to block people on a government list of terrorist suspects from buying guns. Democrats have been denied a vote in the House, which prompted Democrats to call a sit-in to protest.
“Congress can’t even agree that known or suspected terrorists — most of them from other countries — should be barred from legally buying guns in this country,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “Stop stonewalling the nation on gun safety reform.”
In response, Republicans cited recently-enacted legislation to help Puerto Rico through its fiscal crisis, a bipartisan measure to combat opioids, aviation safety legislation and legislation requiring labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients. And they blamed Democrats for filibustering a Zika measure that tracked the version that passed the Senate.
“Just because Democrats are again reverting to their dysfunctional ways because they believe it suits them politically, it doesn’t change the reality that we’ve made significant progress in restoring the Senate to significantly better health,” McConnell said. “We’ve clearly put the Senate back to work.”
In the House, Republicans rammed through a $32 billion spending bill for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency — laced with provisions to roll back Obama administration regulations on matters like coal-fired power plants — on a partisan 231-196 vote. But it’s just the fifth of the 12 bills funding the $1 trillion-plus annual budget for Cabinet agencies to pass the chamber, and signs again point to a catchall spending at years’ end.
The House also passed, along party lines, a bill to impose new sanctions on Iran for its continuing development and testing of its ballistic missile program.