Senators clash in struggle to complete key bills before summer break

Posted at 7:36 PM, Jul 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-12 19:36:19-04

Senate Republicans and Democrats clashed Tuesday over how to resolve a handful of remaining bills before they leave for an extra-long summer recess at the end of the week.

The heated exchanges were clear evidence that the high-priority bills were gridlocked and would have to wait until at least September for action.

At issue are measures that on the surface don’t sound that controversial: One would provide money for a federal public health response to the Zika outbreak, a second would set up programs to address the burgeoning opioid and heroin addiction crisis, and a third would fund the military next year as it stretches to respond to ISIS and other threats.

Republicans are anxious to finish all the bills, which would be election-year evidence of good governing as they prepare to defend their slim hold on the Senate majority. At a minimum, Republicans want to demonstrate Democrats are responsible for stalling the bills.

“It’s clear to me,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican leader, “they would rather have a political issue than to actually have a solution.”

But Democrats cite specific problems with each of the bills and will block two of the three, reluctantly allowing only the opioid bill to make it to President Barack Obama’s desk to become law despite being underfunded in their view.

“The reality is, 1-in-8 opioid addicts in America today are in treatment,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Democratic leader, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s assertion that there is enough money in the opioid bill to tackle the problem. “He’s arguing on the floor we have plenty of money to take care of this. Come to Chicago. Come to Illinois. Come to Kentucky and you’ll know that’s a ridiculous statement.”

But Senate Democrats’ argument to hold up that bill to fight for more funding for the epidemic was undermined when the House approved the measure with a large bipartisan vote.

On Zika, Democrats complained that a House and Senate GOP compromise tapped money from Obamacare and unnecessarily put restrictions on Planned Parenthood.

“They put their ideological battle against Planned Parenthood, once again, ahead of their responsibilities as legislators to help fight a terrible virus,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. “Now, we are days away from a summer recess. They’re still in their partisan corner.”

Republicans countered that the agreement, which had already passed the GOP-controlled House, was the fastest and surest way to approve much-needed funds to spray for mosquitoes and find a vaccine for the dangerous virus that can cause birth defects in infants.

“This is the only way to achieve it,” McConnell said.

On defense spending, Democrats won’t advance the bill because they believe Republicans are intent on underfunding domestic programs that are important to Democrats while boosting money for the Pentagon, a priority for many Republicans. If the defense bill passes now, Democrats warn, bills for other departments of government — such as education and health — might never get to the floor.

But McConnell said more Defense Department dollars are needed now as Obama expands the military’s mission in Afghanistan and elsewhere. He argued also that Democrats want to block the government spending bills to try to convince voters the Senate doesn’t work under GOP control and Republicans should be voted out in November.

“What our Democrat friends are best at is creating dysfunction. Complete dysfunction,” McConnell said. “When they were in the majority, they didn’t want to pass appropriation bills. When they were in the minority, they don’t want to pass appropriation bills. And they look for a way to make it impossible for us to do the basic work of government.”

Democrats also criticized Republicans for preparing to leave Washington without assisting Flint, Michigan, with its water crisis and inaction on gun control after a recent spate of mass shootings.

Both the Zika and defense bills were blocked by Democrats last week. McConnell plans to vote again on each before the end of the week to try to pressure Democrats to change their positions.