Congress set to leave for vacation without passing Zika funding

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

WASHINGTON -- Congress is about to leave for a seven-week vacation without giving the Obama administration any of the $1.9 billion it's seeking to battle the Zika virus, and a Senate effort to revive the nuts-and-bolts process of passing agency budgets was dealt a significant setback at the hands of Democrats.

Meanwhile, House Republicans passed a $32 billion spending bill for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency as lawmakers exit Washington for a seven-week recess, though the move would do little to advance GOP leaders' hopes of fixing the Capitol's shattered budget process.

The House measure, laced with a wish-list of GOP provisions to roll back Obama administration clean air and water regulations, faces a White House veto threat - as does a $1.1 billion GOP-drafted Zika measure that's been grounded by abortion politics and other problems.

GOP efforts in both the House and Senate to restart the annual budget process hang by a thread, pointing to yet another take-it-or-leave-it trillion-dollar-plus bill this fall to keep the government open weeks before the election. The House Interior measure would be just the fifth of the 12 spending measures to clear the House. In the Senate, an effort by majority Republicans to revive debates on the measures - which had languished under Democratic control of the chamber - hasn't gone as well as hoped.

Senate Democrats on Thursday again filibustered the advance of an annual Pentagon spending measure over fears that Republicans would boost defense while keeping domestic programs frozen. And a much-needed bill to battle the Zika virus faces a Democratic filibuster on Thursday, as well, over a GOP provision that would block Planned Parenthood from receiving anti-Zika funding.

"When they were in the majority, they didn't want to pass appropriations bills. When they were in the minority, they don't want to pass appropriations bills," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has been frustrated in his efforts to move the measures through. "I gave it every opportunity this year to succeed. We have spent weeks and weeks and weeks trying to get a regular order of process on appropriations through the Senate."

The House measure, passed Thursday on a 231-196 vote, is red meat for conservatives seeking to take a whack at the Environmental Protection Agency. But its passage would run into a veto threat from President Barack Obama and a certain filibuster from Senate Democrats.

The Interior and EPA funding bill is part of the $1 trillion-plus budget to bankroll day-to-day agency operations. In the past, Congress has devoted much of the spring and summer to passing the 12 individual spending bills that are a part of that process. But divided government between the Obama administration and Republicans controlling Congress has produced lowest-common-denominator catchall spending bills that offended lawmakers on both the political right and left.

The House measure would block EPA rules on coal-fired power plants and clean water rules involving coal operations. The Obama administration has successfully used veto threats to strip such provisions in the past. The GOP measure also cuts the budget of the EPA, an agency loathed by many Republicans.

At the same time, Senate Democrats have blocked action on a huge Pentagon spending bill over a move by House Republicans to use accounting moves to add $18 billion to the measure. Democrats say the GOP move would unravel last year's hard-fought budget deal, which reversed curbs on both Pentagon and domestic accounts.

In one bit of progress, the House cleared for Obama's signature legislation requiring labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients.