Congress’ grade to date? At best an incomplete
Washington — Congress is racing toward its summer break, but like a procrastinating college kid it has tons of work to catch up on to avoid a report card laden with grades of incomplete or even worse.
An abbreviated work period this month produced mixed results at best — Congress exited Washington without acting on funding the battle against the Zika virus, for starters — and a full plate awaits when lawmakers return next month from a weeklong Memorial Day recess for a six-week sprint to political convention season and the traditional August vacation.
Some signs are promising; others, not so much:
Zika: President Barack Obama’s $1.9 billion request to battle the Zika virus has been sitting before Congress for more than three months, but in only the past few weeks have GOP leaders shown any sense of urgency about passing legislation in response. Zika can cause grave birth defects and be spread by certain mosquitoes.
The House and Senate have passed competing measures, with the Senate approving a $1.1 billion bipartisan bill that closely tracks Obama’s request, at least if one counts the more than $500 million Obama has diverted from unspent Ebola funding toward the total. The House measure would provide $622 million and cuts further into Ebola accounts to help pay for it.
A logical outcome would be to pass a measure relatively close to the Senate’s level on funding and include offsetting spending cuts as demanded by the House. But politics have infused the Zika measure, which isn’t helping.
Puerto Rico: Legislation to ease Puerto Rico’s debt crisis has cleared one hurdle with easy approval in a House committee. The legislation now heads to the House floor, where Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will try to unite his fractious caucus behind the bill. The bill to create a financial control board and restructure some of the U.S. territory’s $70 billion debt has support from House Republican and Democratic leaders, as well as the Obama administration. Some bondholders are lobbying against it, though, saying it gives the board too much power to decide what payments will be a priority.
Senate prospects are unclear. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has suggested the Senate may take up the House bill once it passes that chamber. But some Senate Democrats have complained that the board would take away too much authority from the Puerto Rican government under the House legislation.
Budget-spending: Republicans have given up on trying to pass a broad, if nonbinding, budget plan, instead focusing on passing spending bills for the annual operations of the government. That’s not going so well either, at least in the House.
There, the issue of gay rights has blown up the appropriations process, scuttling a normally routine energy and water projects on Thursday. Whether it can be revived is unclear, but signs point to the typical omnibus spending package wrapping together most of the spending bills during December’s lame-duck session.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made it a priority to try to revive the appropriations process in that chamber. With Democratic help it’s going reasonably well, and three of the 12 bills have already passed. But even with senators on their best behavior, the process can be halting.
Defense: Democrats blocked the Senate from taking up the annual defense policy legislation before the recess, saying they needed more time to study the more than 1,600-page bill. The postponement incensed Senate Republicans. They say Minority Leader Harry Reid was more interested in depriving Republicans of an election-year accomplishment before Memorial Day.
The defense policy bill authorizes military spending for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The legislative package also prohibits the administration from transferring detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States, requires women to register for a potential military draft, and proposes numerous changes to the military health system to improve the quality of care.
The companion House measure effectively adds $18 billion to core Pentagon programs through a proposed shift of war funding to other Pentagon accounts. The Senate measure doesn’t, and the difference is likely to delay a final resolution.
Opioids: House-Senate bargainers hope to send Obama compromise legislation by July establishing grants and taking other steps to reinforce government efforts against drug abuse.
Supreme Court: With Republican leaders continuing to resist Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, no Senate action on filling that slot is expected until after the November elections — at the earliest.
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