Congress, After Partisan Convulsions, Does The Bare Minimum

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WASHINGTON (CBSMiami/AP)  — After an intense weeks-long struggle, Congress finalized a deal to fund the government days ahead of a shutdown deadline and provide funding for the Zika fight.

Meantime, Florida is at the forefront of the Zika fight. As of Thursday, there were 119 non-travel related cases in Florida and 705 travel-related cases. Of those cases, 92 pregnant women have been infected.  Four new non-travel related cases were reported Thursday – one was infected in Miami Beach. Three other cases are under investigation to find out where they were exposed.

The legislation is finally addressing the Zika crisis with $1.1 billion in funding.

It also extends existing spending levels a mere 10 weeks, past the Nov. 8th election and is providing long-sought help for the residents of Flint, Michigan, as well as flood victims in Louisiana.

After a last-minute burst of dealmaking, the legislation passed the Senate on a 72-26 vote Wednesday and was backed by the House 342-85 in a late-night vote hours later.

It was a conclusion in sight and within reach since lawmakers returned from their summer recess after Labor Day. But with the Capitol awash in election-year politics, shadowed by the contentious presidential race and engulfed in a fierce battle for control of the Senate, the simplest task became nearly impossible.

Republicans, defending a fragile Senate majority and eager to get a handful of vulnerable incumbents back home to campaign for re-election, accused Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada of holding up a deal just to keep GOP lawmakers in Washington.

“The Democrats are determined to keep us here as long as they can,” groused one at-risk Republican senator, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Democrats denied it but lobbed their own allegations, all but accusing Republicans of racism for holding up money for people affected by lead-tainted water in predominantly black Flint, the final sticking point in the talks.

“All they’d have to do is put Flint in and we’d be out of here in a minute. We want to get out of here. They’re the ones holding it up,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Compromise on a $170 million Flint aid package ultimately gave Democrats a partial victory while the GOP-dominated Louisiana delegation won a down payment on President Barack Obama’s $2.6 billion request for the state. The Zika deal was the resolution of a vexing dispute after Obama made his initial request for federal money in February.

The situation produced frustration all around as lawmakers of both parties lamented their inability to get their basic work done, even if each party insisted the other was to blame. The gridlock that has kept Congress’ approval ratings below 20 percent for years was on vivid display at a moment when the electorate has made crystal clear that it wants an end to Washington’s dysfunction and inability to address the country’s many problems.

Yet even as they stumbled to a messy solution to meet the Friday midnight deadline, some lawmakers were looking ahead to next year, when tough tasks await the next Congress and new president.

A two-year budget deal agreed to a year ago under the former House speaker, Republican John Boehner, pushed a number of major issues into 2017, in particular the fight over raising the government’s borrowing limit. The debt limit will need to be raised by around midsummer, a move that has provoked intense recent battles.

Lawmakers will need to revisit major programs, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program under Medicaid, along with payments to hospitals and community health centers, expiring tax credits for a range of industries, a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, the annual defense policy bill.

There’s also the annual budgeting process and a Supreme Court vacancy to fill.

This year, getting the appropriations process on track was a top goal for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. But Congress deadlocked and couldn’t get a budget done while passing just one of the 12 annual spending bills thatfund government agencies. The rest of them will need to be lumped together in what’s sure to be another messy struggle in the lame-duck session after the election.

Regardless of whether the next president is Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump, the White House will confront numerous cross-currents on Capitol Hill next year.

Whichever party controls the Senate, the majority is likely to be razor-thin and senators will focus immediately on the 2018 election, when Democrats will be defending tough seats in GOP-leaning states.

In the GOP-led House, the number of moderate-minded House Republicans is likely to be reduced, potentially giving more power to the House Freedom Caucus, which frequently opposes routine legislation and impedes deal-making by leadership.

Ryan is widely seen as having presidential ambitions in 2020, which may complicate his willingness to cut deals with the White House.

“Ryan will have a decision to make,” said the second-ranking House Democratic leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland. “Do I want to be perceived as the leader of the obstructionist party, or do I want to be seen as the constructive opposition which works with the president and the Senate to achieve progress?”

Yet with the outcome of the election uncertain, many lawmakers said it remained to be seen whether a new Congress might provide an opening for more productive relations in Washington, or more of the same.

“We can do much better than we are today and it’s a real opportunity for all of us,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “I think it’s something many Democratic senators want as much as Republicans.”

Click here for more information on the Zika virus or here for more Zika-related stories.

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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