Congress tied up in partisan knots over the most basic duty

FILE - In this Sept. 6, 2016, file photo, the newly restored rotunda inside of the Capitol dome is finally clear of scaffolding following lengthy repairs and restoration, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Averting an election-year crisis, Congress late Wednesday, Sept. 28 sent President Barack Obama a bill to keep the government operating through Dec. 9 and provide $1.1 billion in long-delayed funding to battle the Zika virus. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Acutely partisan and all but dysfunctional, Congress has completed its most elementary task after an intense weekslong struggle, finalizing a deal to fund the government just days ahead of a shutdown deadline.

The legislation extends existing spending levels a mere 10 weeks, past Election Day, while finally addressing the Zika crisis with $1.1 billion and providing long-sought help for the residents of Flint, Michigan, as well as flood victims in Louisiana. After a last-minute burst of deal-making, the legislation passed the Senate on a 72-26 vote Wednesday and was backed by the House 342-85 in a late-night vote Wednesday.

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

Republicans, defending a fragile Senate majority and eager to get a handful of vulnerable incumbents back home to campaign for re-election, accused Minority Leader Harry Reid of holding up a deal to keep GOP lawmakers off the campaign trail.

“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,” complained Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York.

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 their state. The Zika deal was the resolution of a long and vexing dispute on that issue 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 many real problems confronting the nation.

Yet even as they stumbled to a messy solution at close to the last possible moment — the deadline was midnight Friday — some lawmakers were already looking ahead to next year, when much weightier tasks await the next Congress and a new president in what may be an even more fraught era of divided government.

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 next year, in particular the next fight over raising the government’s borrowing limit. The debt limit will need to be raised by around mid-summer of next year, something that has provoked major knock-down, drag-out battles among the Capitol’s warring factions and the administration in recent years.

Lawmakers will need to revisit major programs that are ripe for battles including the Children’s Health Insurance Program under Medicaid, 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, as well as the annual budgeting process. And there is a vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court.

This year, even though 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., Congress deadlocked and couldn’t get a budget done while passing just one of the 12 annual spending bills that fund 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 Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the White House will confront numerous tricky cross-currents on Capitol Hill next year. Whichever party controls the Senate, the majority is likely to be razor-thin and senators will likely be focused immediately on the 2018 midterms, when Democrats will be defending tough seats in red 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 himself is widely seen as having presidential ambitions in 2020, which may complicate his willingness to cut deals with Clinton or Trump.

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.

“It depends on what kind of message the voters send,” said Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii. “If they express enough frustration I think you’ll have members understanding that they have a responsibility to govern. But the voters have to hold us accountable and it remains to be seen whether or not they will.”

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