WASHINGTON – Congress accomplished relatively little in a short work period, missing deadlines on the budget and on helping Puerto Rico with its financial crisis as lawmakers began a weeklong break.
They left behind few clues about how they would address must-do items such as finding money to counter the Zika virus and a second, even scarier July 1 deadline for averting a fiscal disaster in cash-strapped Puerto Rico.
Democrats called upon House leaders to modify this spring’s three-weeks on, one-week off legislative schedule to keep working, as Puerto Rico hurtles toward a half-billion-dollar default on Sunday.
“It’s very, very hard to get anything done if you are a drive-by Congress,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Friday. “We’re barely here. And these deadlines are coming.” Hours later, however, Democrats joined Republicans in sprinting for the Capitol’s exits.
Over the past month, the Senate finally passed a major energy bill — the first in nearly a decade — and made progress on providing help for Flint, Michigan, which is grappling with a water contamination crisis from lead pipes. But an effort to revive the moribund process of passing more than $1 trillion worth of annual spending bills ran aground, while talks on a $1 billion-plus measure to fight Zika are looking less promising than previously hoped.
An update on Capitol Hill’s unfinished agenda:
Having blown a May 1 deadline to help the economically distressed U.S. territory, lawmakers are now focusing on a July 1 deadline, when around $2 billion in principle and interest payments come due.
Puerto Rico expects multiple lawsuits to be filed shortly after Monday’s anticipated default. The government is expected to keep operating as usual, but economists warn that its access to capital markets will shut down and that eventually this will curtail public services if a debt-restructuring mechanism isn’t approved.
A House bill would create a control board to help manage the island’s $70 billion debt and oversee debt restructuring. But the legislation has stalled in the Natural Resources Committee, as some conservatives and Democrats have objected to the approach.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has pushed the bill, saying the U.S. may eventually have to bail out the territory if Congress doesn’t act soon.
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, the Republican chairman of the Natural Resources panel, says he hopes the island’s impending default will create more urgency among his colleagues.
Senators have done even less to aid the territory, saying they will wait to see what happens in the House first.
President Barack Obama’s $1.9 billion request for emergency funding to combat the Zika virus, known to cause grave birth defects, has elicited a lukewarm response Republicans controlling Congress. Many GOP lawmakers insist plenty of money to cover the Zika costs is left over from the largely successful battle against Ebola.
The White House has already transferred almost $600 million in previously appropriated money to the Zika fight and would have little choice but to shift more if Congress remains gridlocked. But the administration says new funding is urgently needed to control the mosquitoes that spread the virus, manufacture vaccines once they are developed and produce more accurate testing for Zika.
Congressional GOP leaders seem to realize that they face a political imperative to do something on Zika rather than expose themselves to attacks from Democrats — and perhaps likely presidential nominee Donald Trump — for failing to act.
Senate Republicans may succeed in attaching a smaller Zika package to an upcoming funding bill, and House Republicans are considering adding an even smaller measure to a spending bill next month. Whether this approach will work or not is uncertain at best, but tea party Republicans have dug in against granting Obama anything near his request.
Both the House and Senate missed an April 15 deadline for producing a budget blueprint, which was a particular embarrassment for Ryan. He produced four such measures as chairman of the Budget Committee, but conservatives have hamstrung his efforts in his first year in the House’s top job.
Ryan made a last-ditch appeal on Friday in a closed-door meeting and may be closer to a resolution among Republicans when they return to Washington next month.
Meanwhile, the Senate has gone directly to the 12 annual spending bills in hopes of avoiding a year-end omnibus measure. But the very first bill, funding popular energy and water programs, hit a snag when Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., unveiled an amendment to undercut the landmark nuclear deal with Iran. Cotton’s amendment was germane to the overall bill, but Democrats mounted a filibuster.
It’s too early to give up, but the imbroglio bodes poorly for a successful round of spending bills.
Despite Senate approval of a sprawling energy policy bill, and approval by the Senate environment committee of a bill to help Flint, both measures are far from done and face significant obstacles before reaching the president’s desk. The energy bill must be reconciled with a House version that includes far fewer incentives for renewable energy and does not include money for a land and water conservation fund, as the Senate version does.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah singlehandedly stalled the Flint aid package for two months and remains opposed, saying Michigan does not need federal money to solve a problem it created.