"Public health officials need this money for Zika now," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who warned the virus would spread rapidly as the weather heats up. "They need to prepare for this public health threat which is here. To leave now without putting an emergency spending bill on the President's desk is the height of irresponsibility."
Dozens of Democrats staged a media event on the steps of Capitol to decry the Republicans who control the House and Senate for leaving for the week-long break with what Democrats argued was so much unfinished business.
"Americans are fed up with Republicans relentless and reckless destruction. We have work to do. Cancel the recess. Stay here. Do your jobs," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
"Do your jobs" has become a mantra for Democrats who used it initially to protest the decision by Senate Republicans not to confirm Judge Merrick Garland for the long-running vacancy on the Supreme Court. But now Democrats are attaching the catch phrase to other issues, like the federal response to water issues in Flint, Michigan, the escalating opioid addiction crisis and Zika, the mysterious virus that can cause severe birth defects in newborns.
Republicans counter that each chamber has achieved robust legislative accomplishments considering the partisan gridlock in the Capitol, especially during an election season when control of the White House, Senate and possibly the House is at stake.
On Zika, for instance, GOP leaders point to bills that passed in both chambers to fund scientific and medical research to counter its spread and find a vaccine. But the House approved only about half the money the Senate did and is requiring all that money to be offset through cuts elsewhere in the budget, something the Senate bill does not mandate. Melding the different bills could prove tough and time-consuming unless each side quickly agrees to compromise.
Before leaving town Thursday, the House formally voted to begin negotiations with the Senate over the competing bills. To counter Democratic complaints of inaction on Zika, the office of House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement, titled "House's Anti-Zika Efforts Continue," that was aimed at demonstrating Republicans are responding responsibly to the public health scare.
"With money already in the pipeline, House Republicans are getting ahead of potential future needs by moving today to go to a formal conference committee to reconcile the differences between the Senate and House-passed bills," said the statement from AshLee Strong, a spokesman for the speaker.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a floor speech that included a long list of bills that had passed the Senate under his watch -- including bills to combat opioids, update the energy infrastructure, tighten airport security and curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
"This is how we've been able to transform gridlock into progress and dysfunction into solutions. To give you an example of what I mean, we recently took as many amendment roll-call votes on one bill -- the Energy Policy Modernization Act -- as the Senate took in all of 2014 under the previous majority," he said.
McConnell is constantly promoting what he says has been a return to regular legislative order under GOP control that allows more amendments to be voted on and more bills to pass with bipartisan support.
Democrats counter that Republicans endlessly filibustered bills when they were in the minority and the only reason Republicans have been able to pass anything now is because Democrats have declined to use the same destructive tactics.
That's not been the case when it comes to a bipartisan defense bill McConnell hoped to complete before the recess. Democrats stalled action, forcing McConnell to put off debate for at least a week. Democrats said they wanted time to read the massive bill but McConnell suspected the motives weren't so pure -- especially in an election year when Democrats believe they have a real shot at taking back the majority.
"Look, we get it. Democrats want to run TV ads claiming the Senate can't get things done. They know it's a tough sell. They know the only chance to make it works is by slow-walking even bills they actually support," McConnell said.
And in the House, the start of the recess was marred when a fight over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights blew up a spending bill for energy and water programs. With neither side expected to back down, the issue could cripple all the remaining government spending bills and leave Congress again needing to pass a large and unwieldy omnibus spending bill before the end of the year or face a government shutdown.