The turn of events was somewhat unexpected
Leaders in each party had signaled for days they were close to a deal
Eight days before a critical deadline, congressional negotiations over government funding stalled Thursday, prompting Senate Republicans to force a vote on a bill that Democrats warned they would reject.
The GOP gambit came after months of talks between the two parties and raises doubts about the ability of Congress to pass a bill before the September 30 deadline, when the government could shut down.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, went to the Senate floor and announced the GOP would drop several thorny issues – known as “riders” – that still need to be resolved. The tactic was designed to pressure Democrats to accept what McConnell called a “clean” government funding bill.
“There have been broad requests for a clean continuing resolution. So that’s what I’ve just offered. It’s the result of many, many hours of bipartisan work across the aisle,” McConnell said when he filed the GOP bill. “It’s a fair proposal that funds all current government operations through December 9.”
The GOP proposal was immediately panned by Democrats because it left out funds for Flint, Michigan, where the drinking water supply was poisoned by lead in the past year. If the chamber’s 46 Democrats stick together, they can block the bill from advancing.
“We are now down to a handful of issues, but they are down to the real issues. Now the Republican leader, the majority leader, has filed a Republican-only bill,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. “We Democrats cannot vote for that.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi criticized the Republican proposal, saying “it falls very short.”
Pelosi said Democrats objected to the way Republicans offset the money directed at Zika and said the riders Republicans were pushing showed they have “a tin ear.”
On Thursday night, however, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson became the first Democrat to publicly say he will support the bill because it offers Zika funding, a priority for his state.
The turn of events was somewhat unexpected as leaders in each party had signaled for days they were close to a deal and didn’t anticipate a real threat of a government shutdown, just weeks before the election.
With the balance of power in the Senate at stake, GOP leaders are anxious to complete their work and send their vulnerable members home to campaign. They also want to demonstrate to voters they can govern effectively and deserve to remain in power.
House Speaker Paul Ryan downplayed the back-and-forth between the parties over the must-pass bill to avoid another re-run of the 2013 shutdown, saying “our members realize that we want to get our work done. We don’t want to have high drama around here this time.”
Ryan said members aren’t necessarily pleased that they will have to vote for a short-term funding bill, but recognize that is the option they ultimately have to back to avoid a shutdown.
“There’s never no drama around here – we’re going to have low drama and our members want that,” Ryan said.
In addition to funding the government at current levels for the next three months, the measure offered by McConnell includes $1.1 billion to combat Zika, $500 million to respond to flooding in Louisiana and elsewhere, and $37 million to tackle the widening opioid epidemic through the recently enacted Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.
McConnell called the $500 million for flooding a “down payment” suggesting additional money would be approved soon. Democrats dispute the bill has that much money in it for opioids.
A handful of unresolved and controversial riders were dropped from the bill. One would have forced a delay in turning authority over Internet domain names to an international consortium – something Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, oppose. Others dealt with how the Export-Import Bank functions and truck driver fatigue.
The decision to drop the riders had immediate implications as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said he would not vote for the measure without the Export-Import Bank provision, which is important to his state.
Despite moving forward without Democrats, a top Senate GOP leadership aide said Republicans are still open to continuing talks to resolve differences.
McConnell said there would have the next four days to consider the bill before any votes take place. In the meantime, neither chamber is expected to be in session until next week.