Congress Breaks Down as Democrats Retaliate Over GOP Slights

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Democratic members of Congress hold a news conference on the steps of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol on May 26, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Senate Democrats block defense bill, capping weeks of acrimony
  • Zika crisis, gun control, elections have parties on edge

Republicans in Congress were hoping to ride into their convention and a lengthy summer break with a burst of productivity under their leadership. But disputes with Democrats over the Zika virus, defense spending and guns threaten to derail that narrative.

A tense Congress will gavel in for a final week ahead of the parties’ presidential nominating conventions. The House is still riven after a contentious 25-hour sit-in by Democrats demanding gun-control votes. On the Senate side, the annual budget process is mired in partisan meltdown after the Democrats blocked the $568.1 billion defense spending bill.

“This is the definition of dysfunction,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, calling Democrats “the dysfunction party” for blocking the Zika measure as well as a defense spending bill they had supported unanimously in committee while seeking a guarantee about the final product.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, retorted that the Zika bill was nothing like what Democrats supported originally. He also tossed in a reference to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

“They are the party of Trump. So don’t call us dysfunctional,” Reid said.

Democrats’ decision to stop the defense bill is a reflection of just how much trust has broken down between the parties. They say they’re worried that Republicans are planning what amounts to a bait-and-switch routine: claim credit for a bipartisan bill coming out of the Senate, only to later swap in a more partisan final version in a conference with the House.

That’s what happened on the $1.1 billion spending package aimed at addressing the Zika virus, and Democrats vowed not to let that happen again.

Republican Anger

The Democratic threat of maximum obstruction stunned McConnell, who has worked hard to create a bipartisan appropriations process this year.

"At a time when we face an array of terror threats around the globe, we cannot afford to put politics above support for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines or our efforts to move the appropriations process forward," McConnell said Thursday.

The Kentucky Republican maneuvered to allow another vote on the defense spending bill, possibly before lawmakers leave town at the end of this week.

But barring a change of heart, the demise of the defense bill could effectively kill the annual spending process until after the November elections, with a short-term stopgap measure a certainty in September to keep the government open.

Zika Fight

The months-long maneuvering over Zika funding triggered the latest breakdown.

Democrats have been accusing Republicans of dragging their heels on President Barack Obama’s $1.9 billion request for emergency spending, first made in February. Leaders eventually compromised and agreed to a $1.1 billion measure negotiated by Democrat Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Roy Blunt of Missouri.

That package was added to a broader spending bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate on May 19, though most Republicans voted against the Zika funding because it would add to the deficit.

In conference with the House on its narrower measure, Republican leaders were faced with a dilemma: assuage conservatives demanding offsetting spending cuts to pay for Zika, or accept the demands of Democrats that the virus be treated like other emergencies over the years -- Ebola, flu, hurricanes -- and be paid for with additional borrowing.

Senate Republicans ended up negotiating a compromise that included only Republicans, and then began accusing Democrats of blocking Zika funding. Democrats, in turn, blasted Republicans for including several partisan provisions in the new bill, including one that would bar emergency funding for groups like Planned Parenthood.

Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior appropriator, said Republicans are willing to negotiate further on Zika, but said they still want to avoid adding to the deficit or funding Planned Parenthood. Cole called the latter a "red line" for the Republican conference.

As for cutting deals with Democrats, "we don’t trust them either," Cole said. "They’ve tried to politicize it from day one, and it’s unfortunate."

Cole said Republicans offered Democrats a fair deal. "If the minority wants that much power, they need to become the majority," Cole said.

The fight has become increasingly frustrating for lawmakers like Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who is under pressure to show he can deliver results on Zika now that he has decided to run for re-election in a state on the front lines of the virus.

Budget Deal

Democrats also expressed concern last week to McConnell that Republicans wouldn’t abide by the budget caps for defense spending. Republicans in both chambers have backed maneuvers that would add as much as $18 billion to the defense bill, and Democrats have demanded any defense increase be matched dollar-for-dollar with domestic spending.

They said they also wanted a guarantee that conference reports wouldn’t add partisan riders, citing the Zika incident.

"This decision to pursue a purely partisan path in conference that includes the addition of poison-pill riders and a break with the bipartisan tradition of passing emergency funding without offsets make us even more concerned about your willingness to truly follow regular order," Democrats wrote.

The Senate could still debate the defense spending bill during its planned session in September, but both sides are dug in for now. Either way, the spending bills are likely to be wrapped into a larger omnibus measure that lawmakers would negotiate in the lame-duck session after the November election.

Gun Measures

Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, meanwhile, faces a test of whether he can bring the House together to pass something on guns and terrorism in the wake of the shooting deaths in Orlando and, now, Dallas. 

Ryan has faced internal dissent over his plan to bring a bill pushed by Republican Senator John Cornyn to the floor that would block someone on the terror watch list from buying a gun for three days to allow the Department of Justice to get a court order barring the sale.

Democrats say that’s not muscular enough, but some said Friday they hope to work out a compromise.

Representative Dave Reichert of Washington, a former sheriff, said Friday that he’s been asked by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to take part with House leaders, including the No. 2 Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, in meetings this week "on how we make our communities safer."

"We are all interested in finding a way to bring police and our communities together and create a country where people can feel safe again," said Reichert. 

GMO, Opioids, FAA bills

Even if the defense bill and Zika funding remain deadlocked when Republicans break for their convention at the end of the week, they do appear on track to send several bipartisan bills to the president’s desk.

Those include an opioid bill authored in part by vulnerable Republican Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire; a genetically modified food labeling law to pre-empt a Vermont law vociferously opposed by the food industry; and an extension of the Federal Aviation Administration’s authorization through September 2017.

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